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Illinois Death Row Feud Hits Court

Legal: Attorney general files suit to keep the governor from holding clemency hearings.

September 18, 2002|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Illinois Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan filed suit Tuesday in an effort to prevent the governor and the State Prisoner Review Board from holding clemency hearings for 157 inmates on death row.

The move comes as Gov. George Ryan--who is not related to the attorney general--is considering commuting the sentences of all the state's death row inmates to terms of life in prison. Thirteen death row inmates have been freed in the last three years after the discovery of exonerating evidence, often through DNA analysis.

The governor, a Republican who is not seeking a second term, and the attorney general, also a Republican, have been feuding for two years over how to deal with problems in the state's system of capital punishment. The attorney general is vying for the statehouse in November against Democratic Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich.

Accompanied by relatives of some of those murdered by death row inmates, the attorney general announced the suit at a downtown Chicago gathering Tuesday.

Jim Ryan said a proposed 15-minute time period for each hearing would be unfair to the families of the victims and a de facto end run around the judicial process. Families of the victims would not be able to make a fair case against clemency during the brief hearing, the attorney general argued in the case, filed in Springfield.

The attorney general, in a second suit filed Tuesday, argued that 32 of the 157 inmates are not eligible for the hearings because they did not file their petitions properly or because they are awaiting re-sentencing after their death sentences were overturned.

In a pointed response to the suit, the governor said he welcomed the attorney general's "newfound concern for fairness and justice."

"But with a capital punishment system operating at an accuracy rate as arbitrary as the flip of a coin, the governor believes nothing short of a comprehensive review of the entire system will do," he said.

Hounded by a federal investigation into corruption in the secretary of state's office when he led that agency, Gov. Ryan, 68, announced in August that he would not seek a second term.

A one-time proponent of the death penalty, the governor instituted a moratorium on capital punishment in January 2000 after evidence emerged that several inmates were on death row despite findings that they were probably innocent of the crimes that had put them there.

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