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 Saturday, 11 January, 2003, 22:27 GMT
Governor clears Illinois death row
Governor George Ryan at Northwestern University Law School
The governor (far left) got a standing ovation
All prisoners in the US state of Illinois awaiting execution have had their death sentences commuted.

Governor George Ryan
The Illinois capital punishment system is broken

Governor George Ryan
Governor George Ryan, a Republican who leaves office on Monday, told 156 inmates on death row that they no longer face dying by lethal injection.

The unprecedented move, the most radical since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976, is likely to spark a furious debate across the US.

"I'm going to sleep well tonight knowing that I made the right decision," said Governor Ryan.

"Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious - and therefore immoral - I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," he said.

On Friday, Governor Ryan pardoned four death row inmates convicted of murder, all of whom said that confessions were beaten out of them by police in Chicago.

Leroy Orange, one of the men pardoned, was at Northwestern University Law School to hear Governor Ryan announce the blanket commutation of death sentences in the state.

Mr Orange, who had spent 19 years in prison after being convicted of fatal stabbings, spoke of his relief at being released.

"A lot of pressure was lifted from me that I didn't realise was on me."

National review call

Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who takes over as Illinois governor on Monday, said Mr Ryan has been wrong to commute all death sentences.

US DEATH PENALTY
Reinstated in 1976
820 executions since then
Nearly 3,700 on death row
"There is no one-size-fits-all approach," he said. "We're talking about people who committed murder."

But Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, called for a moratorium on executions and a national review of the death penalty.

A commission set up in Illinois by Governor Ryan found that the death sentences were given disproportionately to the poor, people from ethnic minorities and in cases in which informers' evidence was used.

The results changed the governor's own mind. In 1998, he had been elected to the post as a supporter of the death penalty.

"How many more cases of wrongful convictions have to occur?" asked Governor Ryan.

He had halted executions three years ago, after courts found that 13 death row inmates had been wrongly convicted, since Illinois resumed capital punishment in 1977.

'Mockery'

The country's main anti-death penalty group applauded Governor Ryan's move.

Leroy Orange
Leroy Orange: Pressure lifted
"This is a watershed moment, a turning point in the debate over capital punishment in the United States," said Steven Hawkins, of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

But families of those killed in the cases under review were dismayed.

"My son [William] is in the ground for 17 years and justice is not done," said Vern Fuling.

William Fuling was murdered in 1985, and now his killer will serve life imprisonment, instead of facing execution.

"This is like a mockery," said Mr Fuling.

Ollie Dodds saw Madison Hobley, the man convicted of starting a fire which killed her daughter Johnnie, walk free on Friday.

"He doesn't deserve to be out there," she said.

Governor Ryan's decision was hard to take, she added.

"I don't know how he could do that."

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Justin Webb reports
"There is still wide support for capital punishment in the US"
  Illinois Governor George Ryan
"I had to act"
  Paul Rosenzweig, Heritage Foundation
"The governor has in effect condemned his entire state"
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
Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.


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