Death Row Gets Life in Illinois; Governor Commutes 156 Death Sentences after a Students' Study Finds Flaws in the System

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Byline: Joyce Howard Price, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Gov. George H. Ryan, Illinois Republican, yesterday commuted the death sentence of all 156 inmates on his state's death row, calling the capital-punishment system "arbitrary, capricious, immoral" and unfair.

"A decision on who gets the death penalty in the United States is as arbitrary as who gets hit by a bolt of lightning," Mr. Ryan said in announcing his action - unprecedented in U.S. history - two days before he is slated to leave office.

"Our capital system is haunted by the demons of error, error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die," the governor said.

Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Mr. Ryan, said later all but three of the death-row inmates whose death sentences were commuted now face life in prison without parole. Mr. Ryan said he has commuted the sentences of the other three to 40 years each "to bring their sentences in line with those of their co-defendants."

Mr. Culloton said those three eventually could be freed from prison.

Mr. Ryan announced his decision a day after he pardoned four other death-row inmates who said Chicago police tortured their "false" confessions out of them.The commutations and pardons capped a three-year examination of the death penalty, which began when Mr. Ryan announced a three-year moratorium on executions in January 2000 after courts found that 13 Illinois death-row inmates had been wrongly convicted since capital punishment resumed in 1977 - a period when 12 other inmates were executed.

The departing governor announced the "blanket commutations" to a cheering, standing-room-only audience at Northwestern University law school. His televised remarks lasted more than an hour.

Families of the death-row inmates' victims were not invited to the event. Mr. Ryan said he's certain "my decision will draw scorn and ridicule from many who oppose it."

Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney interviewed on CNN after Mr. Ryan's speech, said the Illinois governor's decision has sparked "outrage cries of betrayal" among police, prosecutors, relatives of crime victims and advocates for victims' rights.

"I don't think we'll see this happen in other states. I think the reaction will be very negative for victims' families. This is the ultimate betrayal," Mr. Coffey said on CNN.

Gov.-elect Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat who takes office tomorrow, criticized Mr. Ryan's decision.

"A blanket anything is usually wrong," he said. "There is no one-size-fits-all approach. We're talking about people who committed murder."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, praised Mr. Ryan's sweeping action, but "commutations at the end of a judicial process are a symptom of a broken death-penalty system, not a solution to it," he said.

He said the death penalty is "flawed nationwide," and he urged the Bush administration and Congress to approve a bill he is sponsoring that offers "national reforms to prevent the sort of terrible choices the governors now face" in deciding who lives and dies.

Jeffrey Toobin, CNN's legal analyst, said on the network that Mr. Ryan's decision will be a "turning point" in the debate over the death penalty, "but I'm not sure in which direction. …