Robert Dunham 0:01

Hello, and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. I’m Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. In this episode, we’ll be speaking with former Illinois Governor George Ryan. Governor Ryan served in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1973 to 1983, then as Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State from 1983 through 1999, and then as governor from 1999 to 2003. In 1999, the exoneration and release of Illinois death row prisoner Anthony Porter opened Governor Ryan’s eyes to problems with capital punishment as administered in Illinois, and sparked a chain of events that ultimately led the state to abolish the death penalty. In the wake of the Porter exoneration, Governor Ryan established a special governor’s commission to study the state’s death penalty system and declared a moratorium on executions. Two days before his term in office ended, saying the system remained “fraught with error”, Governor Ryan commuted the sentences of all 167 death row prisoners to life terms. While not the first blanket commutation in US history, it is by far the largest, accounting for roughly two-thirds of all death penalty commutations in the country since 1976. Recently, Governor Ryan released a new book written with award-winning journalist Maurice Possley entitled “Until I Could Be Sure: How I Stopped the Death Penalty in Illinois”. The book traces Governor Ryan’s journey from legislative supporter of the death penalty to death penalty abolitionist. Governor Ryan, thank you for joining us on Discussions with DPIC.

George Ryan 1:28

Thanks Robert for having me. Congratulations on the work that you do with your association.

Robert Dunham 1:35

Thank you. Recently, Governor, you released a new book and it traces your journey from death penalty supporter to death penalty opponent. Let’s start at the very beginning. You were first selected to the Illinois legislature in 1972, the year the US Supreme Court struck down all existing death penalty statutes. In 1977, you voted to restore the death penalty in Illinois. Why was that?

George Ryan 2:02

Well, that’s exactly where it started. The Supreme Court, as you know, cancelled the death penalty for everybody in the United States in 1972, and then let the states reintroduce the death penalty all across America in 1977. I was a member of the House for five years at that time. I remember the debate vigorously. I stood on the House floor and voted green to reinstate the death penalty, because I know I had been a believer in the death penalty, and thought it was necessary, but it wasn’t anything that ever came up at… outside of an election. Sometimes I’d get a questionnaire that asked whether you were for the death penalty or against it, you checked a little box to say you were, and that’d be the end of it. Everybody wanted to be “tough on crime” in those days, because that was the trend, but we took the death penalty up in 1977. And I was voting green when a fellow on the Democrat side, I think his name was Bob Moore, stood up and said, “For those of you that are voted green today, how many of you would throw the switch to execute somebody?” Now that gave me a little pause for thought. I think the law is needed. I think it’s necessary, but I would never want to throw the switch. Little did I know that some 20 years later, that I’d be charged with that obligation when the time came and I didn’t know it then, but I know - I knew it when it came, I can tell you.

Robert Dunham 3:30

When you voted on the death penalty, did you feel as though you had a firm understanding of what was involved in it in administering it as a public policy?

George Ryan 3:40

No, I didn’t really, because it was one of those issues, as they said, you know — when you run for public office, everybody wants to be tough on crime. We had an election year with the governor that I took the place of in 1999. He ran against the former State Senator for the governorship that he won. She was always trying to get Edgar to be against the death penalty, but he knew that he couldn’t do that because he didn’t want to look like he was soft on crime. But he made her look like she was awfully soft on crime, and he beat her and that’s why he beat her.

Robert Dunham 4:18

You described the exoneration and release of Anthony Porter as a transformative moment in your view about the death penalty. Would you tell our audience what happened in that case, and why it was so significant to you?

George Ryan 4:30

I got elected ‘99, and it was just a few months into my term when I was sitting in the Mansion in Springfield, Illinois, watching the news out of Chicago. My wife and I were there. The news says that here’s a little guy named Anthony Porter, who just been released after 16 years on death row, that he had been exonerated by the courts because he was innocent and they let him go. And he was all grin and smiles and happy to be out. I’m not sure he knew why he was there. He had a pretty low IQ and he was just this one happy camper that he was getting out of jail, but they said that he’d been there for 16 years. And I said to my wife, how does that happen in America? How do you get — put somebody in jail for 16 years of their life? And each morning, when they wake up, they have to wonder, “Today, am I going to get executed or not?” Well, that’s what happened to Anthony Porter. And I said, I don’t know how that can happen in this country and it shouldn’t happen. It’s just not right to sit on - being in jail for 16 years. Then the state didn’t want to pay him a whole lot for all the time spent there as an innocent man. So that’s what really triggered my total thought on it and that’s when I started to look into things. The Tribune, along with Morris Possley when he was there at the time, did a series. They started to point out some of the faults with the death penalty — iailhouse snitches. The worst kind of information that you could have in a trial was a snitch. Prosecutors that were a little overzealous and would misuse their power to do whatever they could to get a conviction. That was pretty prevalent. You had an attorney that was defending people that were on death row sitting on death row. This guy is hired to defend this person — to save his life and they were either alcohol-infested or drug-infected. It was just a terrible situation. And they had all-white juries, convicting black defendants. It was, there were just so many errors in the system as I looked at it. I looked at that story that The Tribune ran, I decided that maybe it needed a little more investigation and that’s when I appointed a commission to present us with some legislation that we could send to the General Assembly that would lessen the possibility of an innocent person being executed. We had 85 pieces of legislation, 85 bills, and I passed only 1. It was an election year when I put it in and I was short-termer as governor — I only had a few months left. We just couldn’t get anything done from the General Assembly, so they passed only one piece of legislation, and that was the video-taping of confessions. So I decided to look at all of the cases to see what could happen if we made sure that all 167 people had some kind of guilt [sic] — or is there a possibility that maybe they were innocent? At that time, we had exonerated 13 through the courts that had been sat on death penalty for several years, and we had executed 12 — so it’s kind of like flipping a coin, to live or die, with the death penalty and that’s where it started with commutations. I studied every case there on the death penalty, all 167 of them. I traveled with the records and would carry them with me everywhere I went - when I would ride in the car, on an airplane, in my office, going to bed. I studied all 167 cases. And I decided that I couldn’t determine whether there was - who was guilty and who was innocent. I read a lot of things that gave me pause for consideration but I decided that I couldn’t determine who would live and who would die in those cases. So, I commuted the sentences of 167 people - committed them to life in prison and that’s where we started with the whole deal to get rid of the death penalty.

Robert Dunham 8:37

You raised a lot of issues in that answer, and so I’d like to take them piece by piece. Another one of the things that I thought it was, uh, one of the most striking things in your book was your observation about how little legislators actually knew about the death penalty when they voted to bring it back. And, still, you were learning most of what you found out about the death penalty from the media after you became governor. I spent four years as a state legislative assistant before I went to law school. And I’ve spoken with numerous legislators and several other governors about this, and they all say the same thing. So what do you think that legislators ought to know? That they should have known about capital punishment when they were undertaking their votes on it? And what steps do you think should be undertaken to make sure that governors know more about the flaws in the administration of the death penalty and flaws in the judicial review process when they’re making decisions on clemency or moratoriums or potential death penalty reform?

George Ryan 9:40

Much like most issues it goes through the General Assembly, and then governors are involved with it — it’s a matter of education. Governors have got to be educated and they have to know what it’s all about. The death penalty was an issue that the public generally didn’t care about. And if they didn’t care about it, the legislators and the governor certainly didn’t. As I think I said earlier — when I ran for office, you get forms from all the groups that asked several questioned about how you feel about things. They’ve always got a little box: “How do you feel about the death penalty: Are you for or against it?” I always marked the box I was for it, because I did believe in it. I thought it was a deterrent, and it was necessary for the proper conviction and necessary to have to prevent crime. But I learned as I saw these cases with Anthony Porter, where he spent 16 years on death row. The people that had been exonerated — more had been exonerated than had been executed as a result of that. But again, nobody that’s running for office wants to look like they’re soft on crime. And that’s what happened with the members of the General Assembly. Now, the only time that I had anybody in the public ever talked to me about it was when I got that form in the mail. I’d have debates, and nobody talked about the death penalty and nobody asked me about it when I was out campaigning and we were going through the state. And so it was an issue that the general public, I think, kind of felt about like I did: it was there, it was necessary, it was good, and it works fine. Until, of course, I started to look at it more and got educated. So education is really what’s necessary. But I still think that the public is still kind of passive about it.

Robert Dunham 11:26

One of the key steps you took, and you mentioned this, was the creation of a special commission. And, obviously, it had a critically important education component to it - to try to flesh out all the problems it could in making recommendations to improve or correct Illinois’s death penalty. How did you choose who was going to serve on that to make sure that you got the best set of views possible?

George Ryan 11:51

Well, I had some advice from people in the legal business: lawyers, prosecutors, public people, business people. I talked to a lot of people. I think the commission was — I’m not sure how many members, I know there was [either] 14 or 18, I don’t remember — to help pick the right people. Now they had a lot of pundits that thought maybe I was going to try and pack it to continue the death penalty. And I never did, I didn’t ever asked anybody to vote for any reason. They met for over a year’s time and came up with 85 recommendations to improve the death penalty laws — the improvement being to lessen than the chance that an innocent person was going to be executed. So I just kind of went through and picked up some top notch people — prosecutors, defense lawyers, people that were involved with it. We had a good commission, and they did a lot of work and presented a set of bills that the General Assembly declined and refused.

Robert Dunham 12:51

That’s another really interesting point that I wanted to bring up. Commissions have recommended reforms in many states. Illinois, yours, was one of the first, one of the most influential. Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, just to name a few. But for the most part, legislatures in those states hadn’t done much of anything, and still haven’t done much of anything in terms of implementing reforms. Why is it that even in the face of this bipartisan evidence of significant problems across the death penalty system, that legislatures aren’t willing to meaningfully address issues dealing with the death penalty?

George Ryan 13:32

Because I believe that nobody, really, is that interested in it. Most people, the public, when they’re going about their daily chores and their work and somebody says, “Oh, Joe got the death penalty today,” and they say, “Well, he probably deserved it. The FBI does their job, the people worked hard, the prosecutors — they must be guilty.” And, “I don’t want to look like I’m soft on crime because I’m running for office”. I think that’s part of it.

Robert Dunham 13:59

When you were in office, you served as a Republican governor: Did others in your party support your skepticism about the death penalty at that time? And have you noticed a difference over time, in how other conservatives now view the death penalty.

George Ryan 14:15

I only had one person on my staff at the time that thought that I was doing the right thing, a fellow by the name of Matt Bettenhausen, who was my death penalty guy, if the right frame. He was the only one that thought it was okay, that I should do what I was doing. Everybody else on my staff, even my Chief of Staff thought I shouldn’t do it, because it was politically… But, you know, I wasn’t going to a run again for office, so I wasn’t concerned about any of those things.

Robert Dunham 14:41

When votes on the death penalty are ideological, they are, as you described them, a question of whether somebody appears to be “hard on crime/tough on crime”, or as being “soft on crime”. But when you get into the actual issues with the death penalty - Is it a deterrent or not a deterrent? The evidence shows that it’s not. Is it cost effective? Does it work? The evidence shows the most likely outcome of a capital case once a death sentence is imposed, is that the conviction or death sentence is going to be overturned. The appeals process is going to take a long time, both for people who end up being executed and for people who end up being exonerated. With a risk of executing innocent people, it doesn’t seem to be fulfilling the pro-life philosophy that most conservatives espouse. But in the 70s, 80s, and 90s you didn’t hear those issues being discussed. Is that something that you are seeing more of now? And how are conservatives responding to those issues?

George Ryan 15:47

I think that there has been a change. There’s still, uh, 28 - you know, better than I do - I think it’s 28 states that have still got the death penalty. In the United States, they just executed two people just last wee, over in Terre Haute, Indiana. Or maybe they’re just coming up this week? You probably know the answer to that.

Robert Dunham 16:08

Yeah. The last batch was last week.

George Ryan 16:11

Last week. Okay. The last batch — they got a batch capacity. Anyway, my feeling always was when I heard about Anthony Porter… First of all, I’m sure you know, he was exonerated by journalism students at Northwestern University.

Robert Dunham 16:30

That’s right.

George Ryan 16:30

So there wasn’t anything that the system could say, “Oh, the system really works.” Because the system didn’t. And if it hadn’t been for the journalism students at Northwestern, Anthony Porter would be in a box right now and he would have been put away pretty quick. It was only a couple of days away from him being executed when they did that. And that was my concern: that an innocent person is going to be executed. And that’s why I made the efforts that I did, after I saw poor little Anthony Porter go through what he went through.

Robert Dunham 16:59

Now I know this is a touchy subject, and I want to be respectful about it. After you finished your term as governor, you were convicted of federal corruption charges and spent more than five years in prison. There are many stories of other people who were former public officials whose opinion of capital punishment and, particularly, prosecutorial excesses changed after they were in prison. But your conversion on capital punishment predated the time in which you went to jail. Did your personal experience with the criminal legal system further affect your views about the death penalty? Or mass incarceration in general?

George Ryan 17:38

Well, I don’t know - I wasn’t on death row. I was a prisoner — it was a waste of time. But I mean, there’s other things they could have — if they wanted to punish me, they did that, but it doesn’t do any good. Incarceration is this kind of joke for people like me when I could have done a lot more to help society, had they left me out to raise money or giving me something at church to do voluntarily. That would have been a lot better. And that’s true with the former governor too, Rod Blagojevich. They put him away for almost 14 years, but he got Trump to commute the sentence. But no, I mean, the interesting thing for me was the fact that it took the journalism students to exonerate, and find a man innocent that was on death’s doorstep. That’s why I continued my effort, and, and didn’t do anything until I spent a lot of time putting this book together to make sure I had it right.

Robert Dunham 18:37

You mentioned, a moment ago, the federal government’s resumption of executions this year after a 17-year hiatus. And so much of the rhetoric we’ve heard around those federal executions, is based on myths and falsehoods. It appears to have a highly political component to it. What are your thoughts on how the federal executions and the federal government has been politicizing the death penalty?

George Ryan 19:07

I guess it’s a matter of everybody, individual people. As we watch what’s unraveling now with the Justice Department, these prosecutors that they’ve got — I think the Director of the FBI and the Justice Department said that they have some overzealous prosecutors there, they’re kind of headhunters. They find a case and they want to make a name for themselves and so they go about it. My prosecutor made the statement that he wanted to bag two governors — and he got it done. He got to Rod Blagojevich and myself. Was there some hanky-panky going on there? I don’t know. But I do know that George Bush was the president at that time, and he was very upset with me, because I did what I did with the commutation, and he let me know about it in no uncertain terms. So I don’t know whether it’s all done. The laws that I was convicted of are no longer illegal. So there’s got to be a change. And when you’re talking about the death penalty, if you can’t get it straight and get it right, then you better not have it. It’s a pretty permanent thing. Can’t go back and do it over, can’t have a rerun. I would rather err on the side of life then on the side of death.

Robert Dunham 20:26

You discussed - With respect to your own prosecution and as you learned with exonerations in Illinois, a lot of the exonerations were largely the product of police corruption, or overzealous prosecutors. And in this particular historic moment, where police violence and obstruction of reform by police unions and prosecutors organizations has become so prominent, how do we go about getting reform? How do we make it so that the system can actually change?

George Ryan 20:58

I guess it’s just we have to be watchful and see what’s going on. We had a police captain here by the name of Burge. Burge was a police captain and he was always “solved the crime, found the killer, and found the criminal”. And they found out that he was torturing people to confess false confessions from. [He] went on and eventually he was found guilty of those things and went to prison. He has since died. He was a guy that everybody thought was a wonderful guy, because he was solving all these crimes. Everybody that he put in prison cost the state, the city of Chicago especially, millions of dollars. It’s got to be a watchful thing to see what’s going on. And it’s got to have somebody, I guess, concerned about it and looking at it.

Robert Dunham 21:46

On January 10, 2003, you pardoned 4 death row prisoners. Then the next day, you commuted the death sentences of the 167 death row prisoners who’d completed appellate review. And I know you talked about how you lived with each of these cases, and reviewed each of the cases. How did you decide to pardon those particular 4 individuals?

George Ryan 22:13

Well, they were exonerated, I think by the courts to begin with, as I recall. I’m not sure what the court cases are right now. I forget. At the time, I thought that they were absolutely — I can’t remember even their names right now, and a lot of the details, but it was just proven to me that they didn’t commit the crimes, the evidence and the DNA testing [unclear]. And I thought it was the only thing to do to let them get their reputations back.

Robert Dunham 22:44

You write in your book, “I came to see the abolition of the death penalty as perhaps the greatest opportunity before me to leave the world a better place than it is now.” It’s been almost two decades since you declared the moratorium, and Illinois went on to abolish the death penalty. What makes the release of your book so important now in helping to make the world a better place?

George Ryan 23:12

Well, I think it is important because there are still 28 states, as you know, that have the death penalty. And of course, the United States, the only country in the pre- democracies of the world that do that. And so I thought maybe my book might be appropriate for that, the fact that there are people that are concerned about it, and that we still have 28 states that have it.

Robert Dunham 23:36

I know we’ve covered a lot of ground in our conversation. But before I let you go, is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience?

George Ryan 23:44

Well, no, — My book is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Kindle… Any place you can make contact with those people, you can buy a book.

Robert Dunham 23:55

The book gives a pretty dramatic reading of what happened in Illinois. The book is “Until I Could Be Sure: How I Stopped the Death Penalty in Illinois,” co-authored with Pulitzer Prize winning Chicago reporter Maurice Possley. As the governor said, it’s now out and available. Governor Ryan, thank you so much for joining us on Discussions with DPIC.

George Ryan 24:15

Thanks for having me. I appreciate it very much.

Robert Dunham 24:17

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