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 Friday, 10 January, 2003, 20:16 GMT
Illinois death row prisoners pardoned
A death chamber in Texas
Other death sentences may be replaced with life in jail
Four prisoners on death row in Chicago who say their confessions were beaten out of them by police were given a last-minute pardon on Friday.

Illinois Governor George Ryan, whose term ends on Monday, said he believed "a manifest injustice" had occurred in the convictions of Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson, Leroy Orange and Stanley Howard.

The old adage is true: Justice delayed is justice denied

Governor George Ryan
Three of the men will be freed, but Mr Howard will remain in jail to serve out a sentence for a separate crime.

The governor is expected to announce on Saturday that he will commute the convictions of many or even all of about 150 other death row inmates to life in jail.

That has not happened in any state in America for 16 years.

Shaken beliefs

The four men whose sentences have been quashed have always maintained that they only confessed to gruesome murders after they were beaten and suffocated by Chicago police officers.

On Friday Mr Ryan agreed with them. He said: "I have reviewed these cases and I believe a manifest injustice has occurred ... I believe these men are innocent.

"I still have some faith in the system that eventually these men would have received justice in our courts but the old adage is true: Justice delayed is justice denied."

Governor George Ryan
Governor Ryan suspended all executions in 2000
The BBC's Katty Kay in Washington describes Mr Ryan's changing stance toward the death penalty as a "road to Damascus" conversion.

A Republican, he was elected in 1998 as a supporter of capital punishment.

But after evidence found by students at the state's Northwestern University suggested that more than a dozen people sentenced to death in Illinois were innocent, Mr Ryan became a champion of the international anti-death penalty cause.

Death penalty debate

Three years ago he imposed a moratorium on all executions in his state.

Since then, a commission created to review the Illinois system found it, in Mr Ryan's words, "badly broken and deeply flawed".

The panel said the system disadvantaged the poor and that capital convictions too often resulted from police mistreatment and confessions reported by fellow inmates.

A series of clemency hearings for almost every prisoner facing the death penalty in Illinois was held in October.

On Saturday, Mr Ryan is expected to announce decisions concerning more than 140 other cases.

Although opinion polls show that a majority of Americans still favour capital punishment, support has been eroding and opponents of the death penalty have called for a national moratorium.

  The BBC's Kirsty Lang
"The hearings heard emotional outbursts from the relatives of prisoners"
  Former US senator Paul Simon
"We're inching in the direction of not having capital punishment"
See also:

01 Nov 02 | Americas
24 Jun 02 | Americas
16 Apr 02 | Americas
16 Feb 01 | Correspondent
15 Oct 02 | Americas
31 Jan 00 | Americas
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