Illinois governor under pressure to empty death row
By Eric Ruder | January 10, 2003 | Page 12
OPPONENTS OF the machinery of death are hoping that they are on the verge of a tremendous victory in Illinois. This week, Gov. George Ryan will announce his decision on appeals for commutations or pardons from almost all of Illinois' 160 death row prisoners.
Three years ago, Ryan declared a halt on all executions after the 13th death row prisoner in 13 years was proven innocent and released. Declaring that the system was "broken," Ryan appointed a special panel to study the death penalty. A year-long investigation found so many flaws that that the panel recommended more than 80 "reforms"--yet still admitted that even if every one was implemented, the execution machine could still claim innocent victims.
With the end of his term coming on January 13, Ryan said last year that he would consider granting blanket commutations for death row prisoners--and ordered clemency hearings to review the cases. Prosecutors, police and other pro-death penalty forces turned the hearings into a media circus by parading the relatives of murder victims before the cameras.
But in the weeks that followed, anti-death penalty forces mobilized to put pressure on Ryan. Last week, the family members of 45 death row prisoners met with Ryan to ask him one by one to commute the sentences of their loved ones.
On New Year's Eve, Rev. Jesse Jackson and members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty visited Pontiac Correctional Facility to highlight the cases of the Death Row 10--a group of Black men who were tortured by Chicago police into giving "confessions" that were later used to convict them. Also last month, separate groups of attorneys, law professors and retired judges each called on Ryan to issue a blanket commutation.
And 36 former death row prisoners--exonerated after spending up to two decades on death rows across the country--traveled to Chicago for a series of events to urge Ryan to grant clemency. "I was lucky," said Gary Gauger, who was freed after being wrongly sent to death row in Illinois for the murder of his parents. "That's such an absurd thing to say, but I was very lucky. Many people helped me. There's no doubt in my mind there are other innocent people on death row."
Last year, the number of executions rose slightly from 2001--from 66 to 71--though this remained far lower than the 1999 high of 98. But the grim facts of the death penalty remain the same. Victims of the killing machine are disproportionately minorities and almost always poor.
"What happens in Illinois will have a national impact," said Alice Kim, a national organizer for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "The impact of the moratorium in Illinois three years ago was to shine a spotlight on the death penalty. Everywhere, there was a new debate and questioning. Now we can take another step forward. We need to keep up this fight until the death penalty is finally abolished."
Family members speak out:
WHEN FAMILY members of Illinois death row prisoners met with George Ryan last week, they gave the governor a letter signed by 78 loved ones of those on death row. Here, we reprint excerpts of this powerful statement.
Dear Governor Ryan,
We ask that you consider the plight of the other victims of Illinois' death penalty system. We are the loved ones--mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, wives and husbands--of men and women who languish on death row.
For years, we have suffered, often feeling helpless, as a broken and flawed system took our loved ones from us and then refused to hear their appeals. Imagine being the mothers of the Death Row 10, all African American men who were convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of confessions that were extracted through police torture.
Ronald Kitchen was convicted on the basis of a jailhouse snitch. Stanley Howard was convicted on the basis of a single unreliable witness. And Madison Hobley was convicted on the basis of evidence planted by police.
Imagine being the mother of Raul Ceja, who was convicted and sentenced to death, even though no witnesses, no fingerprints and no forensic evidence can even place Raul at the scene of the crime.
Or try putting yourself in the shoes of Willetta Harris, whose son David Harris was kidnapped from Cook County Jail by Area 2 police officers, who then proceeded to beat a confession out of him.
These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Politics, professional ambitions and prejudices have played a major role in the decisions regarding guilt and innocence, as well as life and death. How can we honestly say that any of these men--or any of those sitting on death row--received justice when we still have a world with so many prejudices and a system so full of errors?
The Illinois death penalty has made our lives a living nightmare. Please, Governor Ryan, try to put yourself in our shoes. What if your son or daughter was taken from your home and thrown into a cold cell, far from your embrace? Could you accept their conviction knowing that they were convicted under a system that the governor and a blue-ribbon commission acknowledged as "broken"?
Can you imagine what it is like to get a phone call from a police station from your loved ones, screaming on the other end of the line that they are being beaten by police and fear for their lives, and know that you cannot stop their pain?
Can you imagine receiving a call from death row from your son or daughter, asking for your help to get them out, and yet you can do nothing?
The damage caused to our families by this broken system continues to this day. Our daughters have had to leave college to work full time to help with the family's lack of finances. Our children are harassed at school. Our mothers have fallen ill under the daily stress of having their sons and daughters await their death.
The broken death penalty system has extended its racist hand onto our innocent families. We feel that the system does not value Black or Brown lives. And unfortunately, many of us did not have the dollars necessary to buy justice for our loved ones.
When you declared the Illinois moratorium on executions, you gave us hope that we had not felt in many years. We dared to believe that we could save our loved ones' lives. Since then, we have held our heads a little higher, and we have gained more courage to fight for the lives of our loved ones.
Our children have been sentenced to die under this broken system. Governor Ryan, today, we ask you to do the right thing once again. You are our beacon of hope. You can spare the lives of all those on death row and commute all Illinois death sentences.
You have the power to give them more time to seek justice. We are working against a ticking clock, and you are the one who can stop this clock before any more of our loved ones are put to death.
Please grant clemency to our loved ones to end this needless suffering and to finally let justice be served.