Declaring that the death penalty system was “haunted by the demon of error,” Illinois Gov. George Ryan made history last weekend when he emptied death row. Ryan commuted the sentences of all 156 death row prisoners–a decision that is almost unparalleled in the history of America’s killing machine.
“The only other thing that would match what he’s done is in 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death penalty, and 600 death sentences were reduced to life with that decision,” said Richard Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Ryan also granted full pardons to four death row prisoners who were tortured by Chicago police into giving false confessions that landed them on death row–Madison Hobley, Leroy Orange, Aaron Patterson and Stanley Howard.
Collectively, the four spent nearly 70 years waiting to die for crimes that they didn’t commit. Their pardons bring to 17 the number of Illinois prisoners exonerated and freed from death row since 1977.
“I don’t even know how to explain it,” Madison Hobley told Socialist Worker. “I’m in awe. I can’t believe I’m actually free. All this life out here, and the opportunities compared to where I was a week ago–in a tiny cell, with a 13-inch television and a little Panasonic radio as my only outlets. I just wish that the guys that I left behind could be here to experience the same thing. The governor saved some lives, and that’s a great act. But I feel for the guys who are now spending the rest of their lives in a cell. There are at least five more innocent former death row prisoners who are still behind bars, but even those who aren’t innocent–you can’t tell me that people can’t be rehabilitated.”
The day after his release, Aaron Patterson spoke at a Chicago demonstration against war on Iraq. “We don’t have to go overseas for the war,” Aaron told the cheering crowd. “The war is right here, right on over there at City Hall…They declare war on Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. We’re going to declare war on them for all their injustices.”
In announcing his decision to issue the pardons and blanket commutation, Ryan recounted the shocking injustice of the criminal justice system. He gave graphic descriptions of the torture inflicted on Black men by Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.
He talked about the racism of death row, where more than two-thirds of the prisoners were African American–and expressed amazement at the poor legal representation given to most capital defendants.
Ryan pointed out that the Illinois state legislature had three separate opportunities to vote on some of the 85 reforms suggested by a commission that he appointed to study the death penalty–but that lawmakers haven’t passed a single measure.
Yet even as Ryan laid out the devastating case against capital punishment, pro-death penalty prosecutors like Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine and DuPage County State’s Attorney Joe Birkett attacked Ryan’s decision.
Fortunately, these execution-hungry prosecutors can only sputter. But activists know that they will try to fill up death row again, as quickly as possible. Still, Devine had to admit that the death penalty system now has been “so bludgeoned that there’s grave doubt about its viability,” and he called for “a full debate about whether we should have a death penalty at all.” Devine, of course, wants to win lawmakers back to his side. But this is an opportunity for abolitionists to take the offensive.
With Democrats controlling the governors’ mansion and both houses of the legislature for the first time in 30 years, you might think that the road to abolition would be clear. But Emil Jones–the newly sworn-in president of the state senate who says that he’s personally in favor of abolition–said that proposing an end to the death penalty is “political suicide.” It won’t be–if our side lays out the case and keeps up the fight.
Ryan’s decision has transformed the discussion about the death penalty across the U.S. Anyone who would have predicted two years ago that Illinois’ death row would be empty today would have been dismissed as a dreamer. But anti-death penalty activists are celebrating the fact that this dream has become a reality.
It’s time to turn our attention to emptying death rows in every state–and abolishing capital punishment once and for all!
How did we win?
ALICE KIM and MARLENE MARTIN, members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, explain how this victory came about.
Marlene: I have to say quite honestly that it was shocking–even though we knew this was possible and had been organizing for this for so long. It’s a sort of overwhelming feeling at the scale of what we won.
We didn’t really know what Governor Ryan was going to do until he did it. He was under pressure from both sides, and he was vacillating. He moved against blanket commutations last October when the state clemency board held hearings and prosecutors paraded the relatives of murder victims in front of the cameras.
But our side kept the pressure on with demonstrations and many different events by different groups, up until the very last day. That obviously had an impact.
Being in the room when Ryan made his speech, to be honest, you would have thought you were hearing a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. It sounded like he was lifting whole passages out of our newsletter, the New Abolitionist, and our pamphlet calling for justice for the Death Row 10.
We in the Campaign had always wanted to make the plight of the Death Row 10–the men on death row who were torture victims of Chicago police–a household word, and now it is, at least in Illinois.
Alice: There’s no question about it–Governor Ryan took extraordinary action by pardoning the four innocent men who were tortured into giving false confessions and by commuting all Illinois death sentences. Did he do the right thing? Absolutely. He made his decision based on the evidence that was put before him that the death penalty system is broken.
The work of activists, attorneys, students, journalists, death row family members and death row prisoners themselves has exposed the death penalty in Illinois. And activism in particular was the driving force behind the call for blanket commutations. In mid-October, pro-death penalty forces seemed to be gaining ground as prosecutors and police exploited the agony and pain of family members who had lost loved ones to violent crime.
But our side pushed back. Death row family members organized themselves and meet with Governor Ryan to tell their own stories about their agony and pain–what they suffer by having a loved one on death row. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty and other groups organized press conferences, town hall meetings and rallies urging Governor Ryan to commute all death sentences. The Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions held a National Gathering of the Exonerated and organized a march of exonerated death row prisoners calling for blanket commutations. Rev. Jesse Jackson went with Campaign members to visit the Death Row 10 on New Year’s Eve and called for blanket commutations.
These are just a few of the examples of the activism–really the whirlwind of activity–in the months and weeks leading up to Ryan’s decision.
We were also involved in putting forward the cases of the Death Row 10. These are a group of men who were tortured onto death row by the police, and they organized themselves on the inside and asked the Campaign to be their voice on the outside. We took up their request, and ever since, we’ve been working with family members to get the truth out–and I think you can see the results of that in the fact that Governor Ryan’s pardons were for four of the Death Row 10. The activism around these cases in particular paved the way for this decision.
Marlene: Ryan is a Republican. He’s under investigation for having taken bribes, and when it came to the state budget, he was heartless in making cuts. But on this issue, he was more radical than any politician in the state.
I think a lot of people are having a hard time understanding that. But one thing that it says is just how persuasive the case is against the death penalty–that under these circumstances, a mainstream Republican can be convinced.
Ryan was the one who made the decision. But he was presented with the case and the reasons for doing it. There were many people and years of struggle that brought the situation to this point–that made this happen.
This sweeping victory is a confirmation that what we do matters–that activism was central to this victory, even though that may not be acknowledged by the media. And it shows what’s possible–that struggle can win, and is key to winning. There’s no question about it–that this victory will bolster all progressive forces in this country.
The excitement, the pride, the feeling of accomplishment has given a whole new level of confidence to those activists who have been fighting on this front for years as well as to the newcomers. It feels like anything is possible now, and that’s a good feeling. It really feels like this could be the beginning of the end of the death penalty in the United States.
ERIC RUDER writes for the Socialist Worker, where this article originally appeared.