Why George Ryan Should Commute All Death Sentences

From Death To Life

Illinois Governor George Ryan is considering petitions for commutations or pardons from almost all of the 160 prisoners on Illinois’ death row. Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in January 2000, declaring that the state’s death penalty system was “broken.” But Ryan will leave office after the coming election. He has said that he will consider commuting all of the death sentences in the state–as a sign of his conclusion that the death penalty system can’t be trusted.

In early October, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty organized a town hall meeting to urge Ryan to issue a blanket commutation of all death sentences. Here, we print excerpts from the remarks of some of the speakers.

Larry Marshall is a defense attorney and director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.

To make this happen, what we’re going to need to do over the next two-and-a-half months is to put on an unprecedented campaign, with an unprecedented amount of energy. Because the governor is going to be bombarded with horror stories from the other side. These are stories that we all empathize with, and we can’t minimize that. But what we can say is that the answer is not more killing.

And it’s certainly not more killing when the system that is going to kill these people is a system so incredibly unworthy of trust. When we go before a jury in any individual case, we tell the jury that you may only convict and you may only sentence to death if you find proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But don’t we also have to ask the question whether the very system is sufficiently accurate, sufficiently just, sufficiently non-racist, sufficiently non-classist, sufficiently fair beyond a reasonable doubt to tolerate anything close to taking human life?

The evidence shows us that there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt on that issue–but the proof beyond a reasonable doubt is in exactly the opposite direction as those who would take life would suggest. The proof beyond a reasonable doubt shows us that the system is, beyond a reasonable doubt, broken–that the system is, beyond a reasonable doubt, racist and prone to convict the innocent.

You’re going to hear over and over, and see newspaper article after newspaper article where they tell you: “Look, we understand that there’s some innocent people out there, and we understand that the governor should look at the cases.” But here’s a case where we know the person’s guilty, we’re going to be told.

What we need to remember is that the issue here isn’t only whether someone’s guilty. A system that is so bad at figuring out who’s guilty or innocent doesn’t all of a sudden become prescient on the issue of who should live and who should die. A system that can’t figure out the simple question of whether someone was there or not can’t begin to be trusted to decide whether mitigating factors–of a person’s background and character, whether alcohol was involved, abuse, mental retardation and mental illness–begin to supposedly justify that sentence which perhaps is never justified. So we have to remember that guilt and innocence have been a critical issue to get us where we are, but it’s not the only issue.

I commend to you the letter today in the Chicago Tribune by Marlene, where she talks about the inability to figure out who’s guilty and innocent I’ve said it before in a forum like this. I represented Anthony Porter, and I thought Anthony Porter was guilty. I’m the one who works on all these innocence cases, and I looked at the facts, and said, “Hey, you know they’re not all innocent. Come on, Porter looks guilty, let’s work on the mental retardation issues.” That wasn’t a bad choice–we got a stay of his execution. And he lived long enough for others to go ahead and investigate to show his innocence.

But let’s remember something. How lucky was Porter, not only that he was alive when that investigation happened, but that when folks went to Inez Jackson, she was now, 16 years later, ready to tell the truth? Five years earlier, she said that she would have continued to lie, because she was still married to Alstory Simon. It was only because they were estranged and on their way to divorce that she said, “Now I’ll tell the truth. I was with Alstory Simon that night, and I saw him commit the murder for which Anthony Porter was only two days from execution.”

When people tell you that they can look at a file and at hard, cold paper and tell you who’s guilty and who’s innocent, the fact is that you need to go back to square one. You need to investigate from the beginning, you need to have a real lawyer and a real investigator, and you can’t do that 15 years later. In Porter’s case, we were lucky as all hell that we got the breaks, but there are so many cases where we won’t get those breaks, and we will put innocent people to death unless the governor commutes these sentences to life in prison.

And then you see people like Jim Ryan and Joe Birkett. Think about this for a minute. Close your eyes for a second, and imagine that you have been part of a system, and that you personally made decisions, which came so close to killing innocent people–to killing Rolando Cruz, to killing Alejandro Hernandez, to trying to kill Stephen Buckley. Think about how close you came to that. How but for a judicial election back in 1994, these people would have been gone.

And now you have the audacity to speak out and tell George Ryan that he doesn’t have the power to try to remedy the mess that you created.

In my tradition, we have a word for this. It’s the word chutzpah. Chutzpah has been transformed into a positive word, but it’s not a positive word. Chutzpah means unmitigated gall. Chutzpah is someone who kills his parents and then begs for mercy because he’s an orphan. That’s what Jim Ryan is. Jim Ryan is part and parcel of this structure that has a propensity to kill innocent Latinos, innocent African Americans. And yet when someone finally comes around to remedy this, he says, “Oh no, you lack the power to do that.” Sheer unmitigated gall.

We need to be out there for the next two and a half months in a way that we’ve never been out there before. We are this close to making it happen, but we become complacent, if we begin to assume that it’s a done deal, then the momentum is going to shift.

Darby Tillis is a former Illinois death row prisoner who was exonerated and freed from prison in 1987.

Tonight, I want to be a face of the death penalty. I want you to look upon my face and see the bags that once held tears that I cried. I want you to look upon my face and see the pain and the hurt and the disgrace that I suffered–dying, doing time for another man’s crime. Right now is one of the most crucial times in a death row inmate’s life. During the time that I was on death row, they weren’t executing in Illinois. But they were executing throughout the country, and each time there was an execution, a little bit of me died.

Picture yourself on a conveyor belt headed for slaughter, and you know you’re number 14, and he’s number eight, and they recess for lunch. And you have to sit there and wait and wonder when they’re going to start back and who’s going to be called first. Your whole neurological system is in shambles. Those brothers sit down there not knowing–and at every moment, thinking that when Governor Ryan leaves office, they’re going to start up the executions again. And who’s going to be first?

I sat there for over four years, nervous as a cat, as the old saying goes. When are they going to start up killing, and how far down the line is my name? Today, my whole neurological system is wrecked from sitting there–tense, crying, shaking and hurting. There was a Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty then, but there wasn’t all of you. And when the newspapers said that 85 percent of the country says kill them, there wasn’t much hope left. The only hope was in God.

That little picture that I just drew of the brothers is a painful picture. We have to continue. We have to step up the effort, not only to keep the moratorium, but to abolish the death penalty.

Marlene Martin is the national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

Why should Governor Ryan commute all death sentences? He should because it’s the right thing to do. Because it draws attention to the fact that the criminal justice system in Illinois is broken. Because Ryan himself has said that he’s almost sure that an innocent person in Illinois has been executed.

I am, too. His name was Girvies Davis, and he was executed in 1995–a man who was illiterate, but who supposedly wrote out a list of the crimes that he committed. A man who signed supposed confessions to more than a dozen crimes, including 11 murders, after he was taken out to a field by police and told that he could sign–or make a run for it. How many other Girvies Davises are on Illinois’ death row? We don’t know. But commuting all death sentences means we would take away the risk–permanently–of another execution of an innocent person.

Governor Ryan should commute all death sentences, but we go further than that. We call on the governor to come out against capital punishment and work for abolition. Because even commuting every death sentence today still leaves the death penalty intact. It means that more people can be sentenced to death row tomorrow, and the same injustices will start up again.

What our movement faces today in Illinois is a critical battle. We will go forward, or we will go back. A blanket commutation of death sentences in Illinois will be a step forward for our movement. The key to winning is activism. We have great anti-death penalty lawyers fighting for their death row clients, but the fight has to be built outside the courtroom. Our role has to be to push these politicians. Not coddle them, not hero worship them, not rely on them to do something for us. If you look back at history, that’s as sure a way as there is to lose. We have to build our movement ourselves, and there is no short cut to it.

As Malcolm X said a long time ago, before we go downtown to meet with the big boys, we have to meet among ourselves–to figure out what we want to tell him. In other words, we have to build the kind of movement that has hope, that has energy, that has justice, that has facts, that has commitment and the confidence to stick to what we know is right.

And we will win. Maybe not all of the battles, and not all at once. But we will win. We’ve heard it before about the struggle against slavery and the struggle against Jim Crow segregation–that it just wasn’t going to happen. But it did happen. We did abolish slavery, we did get rid of Jim Crow, and we will abolish the death penalty.

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