Illinois Gov. George Ryan enjoyed a warm reception as a “courageous hero” Monday afternoon from a Yale Law School audience that might not have been so admiring of the Republican governor 15 months earlier.
Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in his state in January 2000, after the exoneration of 13 men on Illinois’ death row. In his speech, he defended his decision as his “only choice.”
“It was the right thing, and I had to do it before we executed innocent people,” he said. “That doesn’t take courage. It just takes common sense.”
Ryan said he started his political career as a firm proponent of capital punishment.
“I was a staunch death penalty supporter,” he said. “I vividly remember casting my vote to reinstate the death penalty [in Illinois in 1977].”
He said he remembered one opponent of the penalty saying in debates, “How many of you would be willing to throw the switch?”
Elected governor in 1998, Ryan acquired that responsibility. He said the more he learned about the death penalty, the more it troubled him.
The most decisive event in the debate over Illinois’ death penalty occurred in February 1999. A team of Northwestern University journalism students and their professor, David Protess, found evidence to acquit accused murderer Anthony Porter just 48 hours before his execution.
The Knight Journalism Fellows at the Yale Law School, a group of journalists who learn about the law in-depth so they can convey a better understanding of legal issues to their readers, sponsored the speech. Ryan spoke to the power of the journalist in respect to the Porter case.
“By then, I had just been inaugurated, and frankly, I was caught a little off guard,” he said. “We came within two days of executing an innocent man. Students like you in the room saved a man’s life and changed my view of the system.”
Even after the Porter case, however, Ryan did permit one man’s execution after conducting extensive research on the case and assuring himself beyond any doubt that the man was guilty.
“[The decision] was such an emotional and exhausting experience, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone,” he said.
It was not until the Chicago Tribune published an investigative series exposing the failures of the state’s death penalty that Ryan made his final decision to place a ban on capital punishment in Illinois.
“I had to ask myself how I could go forward,” he said. “It was clear to me when it came to the death penalty in Illinois, there was no justice in the justice system.”
Ryan never said he opposed the death penalty but emphasized he would not reinstate it until a state commission investigating the problems of the penalty reported its findings and recommendations. He did say, however, that in the future he doubted Americans would continue to support the death penalty.
Ryan asked the future lawyers in the room to take their jobs seriously and to stay committed to finding the truth.
“You owe it to your clients and the justice system,” he said.