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4 on Death Row in Illinois Pardoned

Gov. Ryan will issue clemencies today for more, perhaps all, condemned inmates.

January 11, 2003|Eric Slater and Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writers

CHICAGO — Outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan on Friday pardoned four death row inmates who say they were tortured into confessing, and today will grant clemency to many of the state's approximately 160 condemned inmates, perhaps all of them, sources close to the governor said.

Friday's order was the largest freeing of death row inmates in a single day since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Three of the four men -- Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson and Leroy Orange -- were released by evening. The fourth, Stanley Howard, was to be moved off death row but remain incarcerated for other crimes -- noncapital offenses that Ryan and others believe Howard may not have committed.

"Here we have four men who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die by the state for crimes the courts should have seen they did not commit," Ryan said in a noontime speech. "We have evidence from four men who did not know each other, all getting beaten and tortured and convicted on the basis of the confessions they allegedly made. They are perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system."

"It's a dream come true -- finally," Hobley, 42, said a few hours later as he left Pontiac Correctional Center. Hobley spent 15 years in prison for an arson in which he saved a toddler but lost his wife and infant son. The blaze killed seven people. "Thank God that this day has finally come."

Prosecutors and the families of many murder victims were incensed by Friday's announcement.

"For the governor to grant pardons to these convicted murderers is outrageous and unconscionable," Cook County State's Atty. Richard Devine said. "By his actions today, the governor has breached faith with the memory of the dead victims, their families and the people he was elected to serve."

There have been only a handful of pardons from death rows since 1976, with most coming well after the inmates were legally exonerated and freed.

Ryan, who leaves office Monday after one term plagued by scandals from his tenure as secretary of state, called a moratorium on executions in 2000, after the 13th death row inmate had been freed since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977. Illinois had freed more condemned prisoners than it had executed, having put to death 12.

Ryan said in his Friday speech at DePaul University that he remains gravely concerned about the ability of the state's death penalty system to execute only the guilty, and hinted that more innocent people were still facing death. He is set to give another speech today at Northwestern University -- where students helped exonerate several of the 13 freed inmates -- and is expected to grant numerous clemencies, thereby changing death sentences to terms of life in prison.

Ryan has said with increasing frequency in recent months that, while most of the condemned are guilty of the crimes that put them on death row, they were convicted by a system so dysfunctional that it might be impossible to cull the innocent from the guilty. Although Ryan, 68, and his staff have gone over the cases of every condemned inmate -- and held clemency hearings last autumn for 140 of them -- such statements, many believe, have suggested Ryan will commute all or most death sentences.

"You can't say the system is broken, then allow some people convicted by it to remain on death row," said one person close to the proceedings, who asked not to be named.

Twenty death row inmates did not file petitions for clemency, fearing that if they were granted clemency their claims of innocence would be forgotten and they would spend their lives in prison for crimes they say they didn't commit. However, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law filed petitions on their behalf.

As Ryan spoke Friday, his office was mailing letters to the families of the victims in capital cases as well as to the families of the condemned -- letters intended to notify them of Ryan's decision before his speech at 1 p.m. CST today.

In the last 50 years, the largest mass commutation was 15 by outgoing Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in 1972. More recently, outgoing Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste commuted eight death sentences and New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya commuted five before he left office.

Ryan's pardoning four men at once "tells me he was utterly convinced as to the innocence of these individuals," said Daniel T. Kobil, a pardons and clemency expert at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio.

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