CHICAGO — Outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of all 167 of the state's death row inmates Saturday, calling the system of capital punishment as "arbitrary as who gets hit by a bolt of lightning."
The dramatic order came from a conservative Republican and former death penalty supporter whose personal transformation prompted him to call a moratorium on executions in 2000 and lead a three-year fight to reform the system. Ryan's actions have done much to reinvigorate the national debate over capital punishment.
Invoking his virtually unfettered gubernatorial power to grant clemency, Ryan changed the sentences of 164 of the inmates to life without parole, and those of three others to 40 years in prison. The move -- which immediately drew worldwide praise and stern local condemnation -- seems certain to prompt further inquiries into death penalty systems in the United States.
During his four years in the statehouse, Ryan, 68, came to view Illinois' system as capricious, unfair and prone to mistakes. With the four death row inmates he pardoned Friday, a total of 17 have been freed since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977; 12 have been executed.
"Our capital punishment system is haunted by the demon of error -- error in determining guilt, error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die," Ryan thundered in his deep voice Saturday at Northwestern University School of Law. "Because of all these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates.
"This," he said, "is a blanket commutation."
The handpicked crowd of about 100 roared, the applause led by three death row inmates Ryan had pardoned Friday, their families and several other former condemned men who were freed in recent years, symbols of a system Ryan called "deeply flawed."
"This is wonderful. This is good," said a grinning Aaron Patterson, free Saturday for the first time in 17 years after Ryan pardoned him Friday for a double murder. Patterson has maintained he was tortured into confessing, and numerous investigations strongly suggested he did not commit the crime. Unable to contain himself, Patterson gave several one-man standing ovations and clapped quietly almost nonstop through Ryan's speech.
People across the state began speculating on Ryan's plans after the Friday pardons, and national and local telecasts carried parts of the speech live. While the mood at the university was ebullient, many who tuned in did not like what they heard at all.
The families of victims, prosecutors and incoming Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich decried the announcement.
"A big mistake," said Blagojevich, who takes office Monday. "You're talking about people who have committed murder."
Vern Feuling, whose son William Feuling was stabbed to death during a 1985 robbery, said: "My son is in the ground for 17 years, and justice is not done. This is like a mockery."
Blagojevich said Ryan should have handled each case individually rather than emptying death row. He has said he intends to leave in place the moratorium but will not seek to halt new death sentences.
Last year, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening followed Ryan's lead and announced a moratorium on executions. Glendening's successor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said Ryan's order did not dissuade him from his plans to end Maryland's moratorium after he takes office Wednesday.
Twelve states have abolished the death penalty and, as Ryan noted, the United States is the only Western democracy and one of few developed nations that still use death as punishment. World leaders including former Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, and Mexican President Vicente Fox all encouraged Ryan in recent days to commute the sentences.
Although several governors have issued mass commutation orders over the years, the largest in modern history was 15, by outgoing Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in 1972. Since the Supreme Court permitted states to reinstate the death penalty in 1976, there have been 46 such commutations nationwide. The scope of Ryan's order -- 156 were on death row when he announced their clemencies and 11 had been sentenced to death but were awaiting hearings -- will cause other states to consider reworking their death penalty systems, many experts agree, and perhaps their support of the punishment.
"Other states are going to look at this very closely," said Rob Warden, executive director of Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions, which has played a key role in many of the state's exonerations. "Whatever the flaws are in Illinois, they're less than in the vast majority of other states. We don't have the worst system by a long shot.