32 men saved from death row

By: Alice Kim

Last year, in January 2003, days before leaving office, former governor George Ryan pardoned four death row prisoners and emptied Illinois’ death row by commuting all Illinois death sentences. This represented the most sweeping victory against the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court banned all executions in 1972.

But for the last year, 32 men whose death sentences had been commuted faced the threat of being sent back to death row. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit challenging the commutations of 32 death row prisoners who didn’t sign their clemency petitions or who were in the midst of re-sentencing.

Thankfully, in January 2004, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously ruled to uphold all of Ryan’s commutations. For Renaldo Hudson, one of the men named in the lawsuit, this ruling represented a new beginning for him. "I’m celebrating my life," said Renaldo. "Because of this lawsuit my death sentence wasn’t really commuted until the Illinois Supreme Court made this ruling.

From his jail cell, Renaldo helped to organize a successful letter-writing campaign opposing Madigan’s lawsuit last December. In his letter, Renaldo described the lawsuit as "psychological torture." To voice opposition to the lawsuit, the Chicago-Hyde Park chapter circulated the letter, delivering 500 signed letters to Madigan’s office, and held a press conference with Rev. Jesse Jackson and family members of those named in the lawsuit.

The Supreme Court’s ruling represented a victory for the abolitionist movement. It would have been a tragedy if even one man had been sent back to death row. But Illinois’ death row has not remained empty. There are now three men who have been sentenced to death in Illinois. Of the men who now sit on Illinois’ death row, two are mentally ill and one is a senior citizen! Moreover, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in approximately 200 pending cases in Illinois. In about 70 percent of these cases, the defendant is Black.

The reality is that the death penalty in Illinois is still alive. Although Illinois lawmakers recently passed a number of death penalty reforms, the death penalty here continues to target those who are most vulnerable in our society--Blacks, the poor, and the mentally ill!