Two days before leaving office in January 2003, Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of state convicts to life in prison, effectively emptying Illinois’ death row.
In 1999, the first year of his term, Ryan reignited the national conversation on capital punishment when he declared a moratorium on the state’s death penalty.
As a then-state representative in the Illinois House during the late 1970s, Ryan supported the death penalty.
Soon after he took office in 1999, journalism professors and students from Northwestern University exonerated Anthony Porter following a wrongful conviction for a 1982 double murder. Porter spent more than 15 years in prison before his innocence was proven.
The case rattled Ryan as he watched the evening news from the governor’s mansion.
“I was sitting in the mansion, watching the news from Chicago on the television when I look up and here’s little Anthony Porter coming out with a big grin on his face after spending 16 years on death row only to be found innocent of his charges,” Ryan told WTTW News on Thursday. “And I said to my wife, ‘How does that happen in America?’ Put a fella on death row for 16 years and he wakes up every morning and says, ‘I wonder if today is the day they’re gonna throw the switch on me.’”
The governor’s own political career ended in federal corruption convictions. In September 2006, he was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for steering millions in lucrative government contracts and leases to friends in exchange for bribes and vacations.
Ryan said he’d leave the subject of his legacy up to historians, but hopes through his new book “Until I Could Be Sure: How I Stopped the Death Penalty in Illinois,” co-authored by Maurice Possley, he can help people rethink the issue of capital punishment.
“There’s still 28 states that have the death penalty, plus the United States,” Ryan said. “We gotta do away with the death penalty; it’s not a deterrent in any fashion and it’s just kind of barbaric.”
Video: Ryan talks about being convicted of 18 felony corruption charges and sentenced to six and a half years in prison.