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Unlikely Candidate for Death Penalty Reformer

Capital punishment wasn't on Ryan's radar when he became governor. Watching a murderer die helped change his outlook.

January 12, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — A plain-spoken Midwestern Republican in a plain suit and strictly functional eyeglasses, conservative Illinois Gov. George Ryan is a most unlikely champion for death penalty reform. He hardly gave capital punishment any thought at all, save for a brief period in 1977 when, as a young state legislator, he voted to reinstate it.

Executions were, before and after his vote, one of those faraway facts of justice in the United States, he said in a recent interview, a punishment for the worst criminals. It didn't have much to do with a pharmacist from Kankakee.

Then, in 1999, Ryan, a Republican, famously gruff, even surly, became governor. And even as he was moving into the governor's mansion in Springfield, the death penalty system began crumbling around him.

An old-style Illinois politician adept at the art of the backroom deal, he wanted to pay attention to the state's crumbling bridges, to early-childhood education, to doing away with highway tollbooths. By March 1999, however, four death row inmates had been freed since he'd taken office, 13 since he'd helped restart executions in the state.

Ryan, now 68, was being pulled into the morass. And then, in early March, the case of Andrew Kokoraleis came across his desk.

Ryan summoned detectives who had questioned Kokoraleis in the murder and mutilation of 21-year-old Lorraine Borowski. He read court transcripts and queried prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Ryan decided that there was no doubt; Kokoraleis had murdered the young secretary. Early in the morning of March 17, he sat by the phone in his Chicago office as Kokoraleis was executed.

"It's bad enough," Ryan said of the experience, "if the guy's guilty."

"It was a very painful, soul-searching journey in wrestling with the decision that meant a man's life," said Jeremy Margolis, a Chicago attorney and Ryan confidant who sat with the governor during the execution. "By the time the next case was on its way, he was pretty much determined that the system was so flawed that, sooner or later, he was likely to get a case that was flawed."

So, in the grammatically mangled language that is his style, Ryan called a moratorium on executions. And he appointed a panel to investigate Illinois' process for meting out death. A supporter of the penalty for his entire adult life, he was inundated with calls and letters of support, from across the country and around the world.

On Friday, he pardoned four men from death row and Saturday he granted clemency to all 167 condemned inmates, reducing most of their sentences to life in prison without parole and three of them to 40 years.

George H. Ryan was born in Iowa and moved as a boy with his father, a pharmacist, and mother to the blue-collar town of Kankakee, about 60 miles south of Chicago "but a thousand miles away in a lot of ways," he said.

He served two years in the Army in Korea, moved home and went to pharmacy school. He married his high-school sweetheart, Lura Lynn Ryan, with whom he now has six children and 14 grandchildren.

After school he began working in the family pharmacy. But politics soon pulled at him -- conservative Midwestern politics.

In 1972 he won a seat in the Illinois General Assembly. In 1977, he pushed a green button to vote yes on the issue of reinstating the death penalty.

He became speaker of the House, then lieutenant governor, then secretary of state in 1991.

As secretary of state, he lowered the legal limit for drunk driving, required school bus drivers to undergo background checks, and otherwise continued his career as a straight-ahead law-and-order man, a solid Midwest conservative.

He is still just that, Ryan said recently. The search for justice should not be the domain of one political party or school of thought.

"I never intended to be an activist on this issue," he said Friday. He just didn't want his state to execute an innocent person.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Trying to fix a flawed system

Illinois Gov. George Ryan's efforts to reform the state's capital punishment system:

Jan. 31, 2000: Ryan declares a moratorium on executions after 13 men are freed from death row because new evidence exonerated them or there were flaws in the way they were convicted.

March 9, 2000: Ryan launches a commission on capital punishment to study the state's death penalty system and recommend reforms.

April 15, 2002: The panel proposes dozens of reforms and says capital punishment should be abolished if the reforms can't be enacted.

Oct. 15, 2002: The state begins a marathon series of clemency hearings for nearly every prisoner on death row.

Dec. 19, 2002: Ryan pardons three men wrongfully convicted of murder; Rolando Cruz, Gary Gauger and Steven Linscott.

Jan. 10, 2003: Ryan pardons Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Aaron Patterson and Leroy Orange, saying Chicago police tortured the men into confessing to murders they didn't commit.

Jan. 11, 2003: Ryan commutes 167 death sentences, a move that will clear death row. Most of the inmates now face life in prison without parole; three could eventually be freed.

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Source: Associated Press

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