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Sentenced to a Life of Mourning

The family of a woman murdered for her fetus can't understand how the governor of Illinois could have emptied death row.

January 25, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — The middle-of-the-night call could mean just one thing: Jackie Arnold's daughter was having her baby. Gary Arnold answered the phone but handed it to his wife. She should be the first to hear the good news.

This is what she heard: Her daughter Debra Evans, 28, had been slain. Evans' fetus was missing, and her daughter was dead. One of her two young boys was missing, the other safe with police.

Sitting in her bed in the early hours of Nov. 17, 1995, Jackie Arnold learned the first details of a spree of butchery that had, unbeknownst to police, not yet ended.

This month, then-Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of every condemned inmate in the state, to great praise from death penalty opponents around the globe. The Arnolds would like the world to understand the misery that came before, to appreciate what Ryan's executive order did from their point of view.

It spared the lives of people who, wanting a light-skinned black baby, shot and stabbed Evans, sliced her full-term fetus from her womb, stabbed her daughter to death in her bed, kidnapped one son and later stabbed him to death too. Evans probably was still alive when they cut out her baby, an autopsy showed.

That baby is still alive. Elijah Evans is 7 and lives with his 9-year-old brother, Jordan, cared for now by Debra Evans' father, Sam Evans. The older boy saw the killers cut open his mother. He was 22 months old and spared, police believe, because the killers thought him too young to make sense of the mayhem, and because one of them was his father.

It became clear from his nightmares, the family says, from his terror when he saw anyone who looked remotely like the killers, that he understood much of what was happening.

"It's not about closure," Jackie, 53, said of why they wanted the killers executed. "You can't give me closure -- not in this life. They deserved to die. George Ryan played God."

Ryan, a conservative Republican who left office Jan. 13 after one term, dramatically reinvigorated the national debate over the death penalty as he changed from proponent to opponent, placed a moratorium on executions and, two days before he left office, emptied death row.

As heads of state and Nobel laureates have lauded Ryan's actions, which reduced the death sentences of 164 inmates to life in prison without parole, and three others to 40 years, Ryan has received little support from Illinois residents.

Victims' families, hundreds of prosecutors, members of the state's Prisoner Review Board, and the new governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, have all harshly criticized Ryan. Blagojevich has said he will keep the moratorium for the time being, but has no plans to seek the end of the death penalty.

Indeed, by this week, prosecutors in the Evans case and dozens of others were going to great lengths to skirt Ryan's order, in some instances searching for technical legal glitches -- the kind they usually lament for freeing the guilty -- in the hope of sending some who received clemency back to death row.

They were combing old records to see if perhaps sentencing papers had not been signed or otherwise properly processed, on the theory that if an inmate had not been legally, technically, sentenced to death he could not be granted clemency from that sentence.

In several counties, prosecutors were revisiting multiple murder cases in which, after a person was sentenced to death in one or two of the crimes, other slayings were set aside. They may seek a new death penalty trial for the recently spared convict in one of the other cases. In Cook County, which includes Chicago, prosecutors filed a motion with the state Supreme Court arguing that 10 of the sentences Ryan commuted had been vacated by state or federal courts and the inmates, awaiting new sentencing hearings, should not then qualify for commutation.

Comforting Moments

As the legal maneuvering progressed one recent day, this town 60 miles south of Chicago was so cold that the streets were frozen nearly white even though it hadn't snowed. The ice of the Kankakee River creaked as it pushed slowly across the flatlands, passing near George Ryan's home, just a few miles from the Arnolds'.

The Arnolds sat in their ranch house in a quiet cul-de-sac and spoke about the startling amount of blood that can pour from a child's body, about the antidepressants that have helped keep Jackie together for more than seven years, about how they will never have the slightest idea what was really going through the killers' minds.

Their primary sources of comfort, after each other, were snapshots of their loved ones, spread out on the kitchen table, and the possibility that, although they despised the clemencies, maybe Ryan's order spelled the end of a seven-year line of hearings and trials and testimony.

They wished the end had come another way.

"They say Gov. Ryan's courageous," said Gary, Evans' 50-year-old stepfather, a manager for Environmental Management Corp. "Courageous.... He's a coward. This was a cop-out."

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