20 years later: Former Gov. Ryan reflects on decision to end death penalty

WGN Investigates

It’s been 20 years since Illinois Gov. George Ryan captured national headlines and angered some in his own party by suspending the death penalty in Illinois. 

He would go on to essentially “clear” death row by commuting sentences to life in prison. It happened after a troubling trend that saw as many inmates “exonerated” as “executed” in Illinois.

WGN’s Ben Bradley spoke with the former governor who is out with a new book about his evolution on capital punishment.

 “Most people didn’t care about the death penalty or what it did or how it worked, including me,” Ryan said.

Ryan’s thinking changed when he became the guy throwing the proverbial switch, or in Illinois’ case, authorizing a lethal injection.

“I was sitting in the mansion with my wife one day, one night, after a heavy day in the governor’s office, I was watching WGN News on TV, which you could get in Springfield, and here comes this little guy out of prison with a big grin on his face so happy to be out of jail,” he said.

In February 2019, Ben Anthony Porter was released from death row after 16 years. He was greeted by Northwestern University professor David Protess and his students, the people largely responsible for proving Porter’s innocence and saving his life as part of their class project.

“I said to my wife; ‘How does that happen in America?’ A guy sits in jail for 17 years. How would you like to wake-up every morning for 17 years and say, ‘Maybe they’re going to kill me today?’” Ryan said.

The statistics were stunning:  12 men executed, 13 men exonerated in Illinois since the return of the death penalty in the late 1970s. 

“Everybody said ‘In the end the system works, we haven’t executed anyone who is innocent. It’s never been done.’ Well, I don’t believe it’s never been done because I was never able to prove it,” Ryan said.

He said he doesn’t know if innocent people have been executed in Illinois.

“But I just got to guess with all the errors in the system, there has to be some,” he said.  

Ryan spent months meeting with death penalty opponents as well as the families of crime victims. They were on a collision course.

And there was a dark cloud hanging over the governor’s deliberations: A scandal from his days as Secretary of State called “Licenses for Bribes.” 

 “That was always the message I got from a lot of people during the investigation that I did it for a reason. I think I put a big X on my back as far as prosecutors and the government was concerned.  They sure didn’t like what I did,” Ryan said,

Ryan is convinced his opposition to the death penalty inspired prosecutors to throw the book at him but Ryan’s own book includes a forward by author, lawyer and capital punishment opponent Scott Turow that reads in part: “To get the unpleasantries out of the way, despite my affection for Governor Ryan, I believe the evidence supported his conviction on corruption charges.”

“I didn’t want to leave office and say, ‘ They killed poor old whatever his name was and now they found out he didn’t do it.’ I was very cautious about that,” Ryan said 

Ryan talks about his time in prison.

“It was an absolutely waste of time,” he said. “Six-and-a-half or seven years. They could’ve put me on the street. They could’ve put me in some kind of public service, raise money for some kind,” he said.

He also wrote about losing his wife while away. 

“I lost the love of my life, Lura Lynn, on June 24, 2011,” he said. “I’d been allowed to visit her bedside for two hours in January 2011. It was extraordinarily difficult. She recognized me but she struggled to be able to speak.”

 Ryan hopes he’ll be remembered for his death penalty stance more than the scandal. A Republican governor instituting a moratorium on executions captured national attention.

Capital punishment was formally abolished in Illinois by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2011. Four other states followed bringing to 22 the number of states without capital punishment.

“I don’t know if we changed a lot of minds but I know several states that have abolished the death penalty and some say it was my actions that started it and was the reason those states looked at it and changed their minds about it,” Ryan said.

The number of executions nationwide peaked in 1999 — just as Ryan prepared to institute a moratorium in Illinois.

Ninety-eight prisoners were put to death across America that year. The number has been steadily falling since, with 22 executions in the United States last year — 12 so far this year.

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