Illinois death row emptied


By: Marlene Martin

The road to abolition got that much shorter in January when Illinois Gov. George Ryan, in his final days in office, announced that he was pardoning four death row prisoners–all of them members of the Death Row 10–and issuing a blanket commutation for every other prisoner facing execution. A total of 164 prisoners were given sentences of life without parole, and three others had their sentences shortened to 40 years.

Aaron Patterson, Leroy Orange and Madison Hobley walked free hours after the governor’s announcement, and Stanley Howard was moved off death row and into the general prison population, where he must still serve time on another bogus charge.

Death row has been effectively closed down for the time being.

The day after the three were set free, Anthony Porter, the 10th person exonerated from Illinois’ death row, opened his house for a victory party. Family, friends and Campaign activists packed in to welcome Madison home. “I just can’t thank you all enough,” said Madison in between hugs from all of the well-wishers. As Doug Lee, of the Rogers Park chapter of the Campaign, said, “It just doesn’t seem real somehow. He’s finally out–I just can’t believe it.”

Three pardoned men spoke at a meeting organized by the Campaign in Hyde Park, titled “Free at Last.” A crowd of 125 people braved the bitter cold to be a part of this celebratory meeting, and they came to their feet to give each of the exonerated men a standing ovation. Madison also spoke on a panel held later in the week, in Rogers Park, where another 125 came out to hear him speak.

If there was a theme coming from the newly exonerated, it was that we have to keep up the struggle. “It’s good to be out and have freedom,” said Madison Hobley, in his emotional plea to the audience. “But we have to continue the fight for the brothers we left behind.”

On death row, prisoners wanted anti-death penalty activists on the outside to know that “you all deserve a pat on the back,” as Bobby Simms put it when some of us visited Pontiac’s condemned unit a few days after the announcement.

But for some, the victory was bittersweet. Ronnie Kitchen, one of the Death Row 10 members whose confession tortured from him by Chicago police is the only reason he’s behind bars, says that he’s happy that no one in Illinois is under the sentence of death anymore–but feels anger and pain at not being among the pardoned. “I just sat on my bed and put my pillow over my head when all of the news was going on,” he said. “They had a psychiatrist come up and try to talk to me. I just said, ‘Hey you know what? I’m not supposed to be here.’”

Renaldo Hudson reminded us of where the struggle needs to go now. He has always admitted his guilt, but anyone who meets him will recognize in five minutes that there is no reason in the world why he should be behind bars, much less put to death. “I was 19 at the time of this crime, I was messed up on drugs, and I never intended to hurt anyone,” Renaldo said. “But I feel bad about what happened, and I’m a changed person. That message has to get out.”

It does. This system of death is so broken–so likely to convict the innocent, so willing to target Blacks and the poor for the ultimate punishment–that no one should have to live with it. We have to be committed to keeping up the fight for abolition–or else death row will only fill up again.

As we were leaving Pontiac, we told the warden that we didn’t know when or if we’d be back. “Oh, you’ll be back,” he said smugly. “I’m sure of that.” They think that they’ll soon have new prisoners on death row. But we proved them wrong once–and we are determined to prove it again!

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