Two former death-row prisoners whose sentences were commuted by governors in Illinois and Ohio more than a decade ago have been released from custody.

Renaldo Hudson (pictured) was one of 167 prisoners whose death sentences were commuted to life without parole by Governor George Ryan in January 2003. He was released from Danville Correctional Center on September 2, 2020, after Governor J.B. Pritzker granted him a second commutation, reducing his sentence to time served.

Jeffrey Hill was released on parole on September 1, 2020, after a ruling by the Ohio parole board granting him early release. Governor Ted Strickland had commuted Hill’s death sentence to 25 years to life on February 12, 2009, following the Ohio Parole Board’s unanimous recommendation that he not be put to death.

Both men had been considered model prisoners since their release from death row.

Renaldo Hudson’s Case

Hudson had been imprisoned 37 years since his arrest for a 1983 murder he committed while high on drugs. He was 19 years old at the time. His first trial in 1985 ended in a mistrial when the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict. At his second trial in 1990, he was convicted and sentenced to death.

While in prison, Hudson taught himself to read and write and became interested in religion, converting to Islam and later to Christianity. He earned a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, and a bachelor’s degree. He also graduated from a counselor’s program and became a certified literacy tutor. In 2003, Hudson created an essay contest that asked prisoners “who am I and what can I do better?” A collection of these essays was later published as a novel. In 2018, he created a peer mentorship program that has nearly 500 participants.

Hudson has long expressed remorse for his actions. He told the Chicago Tribune, “I will not attempt to make excuses. It was a horrible, horrible thing. … That’s a difficult thing to realize that you’re the person completely responsible for the death of someone and then such a horrible death.”

Hudson’s second clemency, which was part of a series of commutations Governor Pritzker granted in response to the coronavirus, was not opposed by Cook County District Attorney Kim Foxx. Nonetheless, Hudson did not expect it to happen. After his release, he told the Tribune:

“When my transformation started, you have to understand, I was preparing to die, I wasn’t preparing for this moment … for a chance to be set free. And, so, my transformation was for me. My transformation was that I didn’t want to die being good for nothing. I didn’t want to die knowing that no one cared.”

Jeffrey Hill, right, with his lawyer, assis­tant fed­er­al defend­er Justin Thompson, after his release on parole September 12020.

Jeffrey Hill’s Case

Hill was sentenced to death in Hamilton County, Ohio, for killing his mother in 1991 while in a drug-induced rage. Governor Strickland commuted his sentence less than a month before Hill was scheduled to be executed.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported at the time that “Ohio prison officials say it’s the first time an inmate facing death for killing a family member has unanimous backing from his family as he fights execution.” The pardons board unanimously recommended clemency, advising the governor that it “does not consider this offense and offender the ‘worst of the worse’ as in other death penalty cases.” The clemency report urged Strickland to honor the “compelling and unanimous opinion of victim Emma Hill’s family who favor clemency in this case. … They have suffered tremendous loss, and execution would add further to their suffering.”

The board recommended reducing Hill’s sentence to life with parole eligibility after 25 years. It was the first time it had recommended that any death-row prisoner’s sentence be commuted to a sentence less than life without parole. Gov. Strickland accepted the recommendation, citing “the views of the victim’s family, the lack of adequate representation by counsel at Mr. Hill’s sentencing, the remorse demonstrated by Mr. Hill regarding his actions, the lack of proportionality of the sentence of death in this case when compared with similar murder cases, and the expressed views of two justices of the Ohio Supreme Court which reviewed this case on appeal.”

Following a hearing in June 2020, after 27 years in prison, the parole board granted Hill’s application for parole, clearing the way for his release on September 1.