YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A Matter of Life and Death

Illinois Gov. George Ryan backed executions, until an inmate's fate was in his hands. His second thoughts have damaged him politically.

November 08, 2002|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — When the death penalty finally had a name, Andrew Kokoraleis, and a face, squared-jawed and olive-skinned, George Ryan's nearly three decades of preparation deserted him.

The Illinois governor had been in politics most of his adult life, and as a legislator had voted to reinstate capital punishment. He then helped shape the state's death penalty system, and campaigned time and again on the conservative Republican platform of law and order and the ultimate punishment for criminals such as Kokoraleis, a mutilation murderer.

In March 1999, though, the facade of infallibility surrounding the death penalty system was peeling away like shoddy siding. And in the midst of its startling collapse Ryan, governor for just 2 1/2 months, had to decide whether a subject of this system would live or die.

He called in the prosecutors and defense attorneys from the case, questioned detectives who had interrogated Kokoraleis in the slaying of 21-year-old secretary Lorraine Borowski. He spent nights poring over stacks of legal documents.

On March 16, hours before Kokoraleis (pronounced Koka-RAL-us) was scheduled to die, Ryan still hadn't made up his mind, and directed an aide to prepare the documents for a 90-day stay of execution. There was a phone on his desk with a direct link to the execution chamber 361 miles south near the town of Tamms.

A Methodist, he prayed. He asked others to pray. But he didn't file the stay and he didn't lift the receiver.

"I finally decided he was guilty, and needed to be executed," Ryan recalls.

At 12:33 a.m. on March 17, prison officials sent a chemical solution flowing into Kokoraleis' arm. Four minutes later, he licked his lips, breathed heavily three times, and died.

It was the only execution Ryan would oversee. The 68-year-old Midwestern conservative was on his reluctant way to becoming the unlikeliest of heroes to death penalty opponents around the world, and at the same time a pariah in his own state party.

Over the next 10 months, fissures in the system would turn to cracks, which would turn to crevasses.

Prosecutors who "knew or should have known" they were trying the wrong men were sending them to death row anyway; the accused were being defended by disbarred lawyers; death sentences were being issued solely on the testimony of jailhouse informants -- prisoners with nothing to lose and freedom to gain in exchange for damning testimony.

On Monday, Jan. 31, 2000, Ryan was again sitting in his office here, 16 floors above a melancholy wash of old gray snow, when the state attorney general called. Several death row inmates had lost their final appeals, he said, and it was time to schedule them for the death chamber.

"Well," Ryan grumbled, "you might want to hold off on that. I might have something to say."

Media Summoned

He hung up and instructed his staff to call a news conference immediately. He did have something to say.

"Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty," Ryan announced, "until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate."

Ryan is now considering clemency requests by 142 of the state's 160 death row inmates and is likely to commute some of their sentences to life terms, aides say.

Nearly three years after he called the moratorium, two months before he leaves politics, probably for good, it is not clear even to Ryan how much his fundamental philosophy has changed when it comes to the death penalty.

He still believes that some crimes deserve the final punishment, believes he made the right decision with Kokoraleis. But when asked recently if a flawless system were built, one that could never execute an innocent person, would he then oppose executions on philosophical or moral grounds, Ryan pauses at length.

"That's one of the things I'm still wrestling with," he says in an uncharacteristically hushed voice. "I don't know how you ever make it perfect."

When Ryan returns home to Kankakee in January after 30 years in politics, he will leave behind a legacy he neither dreamed nor wanted, one that reportedly had him being considered for a Nobel Peace prize at the same time fellow Republicans were rushing him into retirement.

"The debate has shifted dramatically," said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center. Just a few years ago, politicians "didn't want to question the death penalty, let alone oppose it. I think Gov. Ryan has been uniquely important in that he is a Republican and a supporter of the death penalty ... and yet was somebody who was visibly and dramatically changed by being responsible for the death penalty in his state."

Los Angeles Times Articles