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A historic decision: In new book, former governor discusses how he put an end to the death penalty in Illinois

Most soon-to-be former governors, on their way out of office, keep a low profile as they prepare to pass the torch on to their successor. But that wasn’t the case with George Ryan.

On Jan. 11, 2003, just two days before his term expired, Ryan made national and international news by commuting the sentences of all 167 inmates on Illinois’ death row.

Now, in a new book, “Until I Could Be Sure: How I Stopped the Death Penalty in Illinois,” the former Republican governor reflects on his painstaking, often emotional journey from being an early supporter of reinstating capital punishment to the man who almost singlehandedly brought it down.

“I guess I was just taking my time,” Ryan, now 86, said during an interview when asked why he chose to release the book now. “You know, I did what I could while I was there, and I wanted to get it researched and get it done and do it right.”

A pharmacist from Kankakee, Ryan rose through the ranks of Republican politics in Illinois, first helping run the campaign of former Rep. Edward McBroom, and later winning a seat on the Kankakee County Board of Supervisors. He was elected to the Illinois House in 1972, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty nationwide.

But the court would reverse itself four years later after several states, including Illinois, adopted new laws that they hoped would meet constitutional muster. The first one in Illinois, passed in 1973, was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court. But in 1977, the General Assembly enacted another law that would survive court challenges.

Drawing extensively from House journals, Ryan recalls the passionate debate over House Bill 10, including the comments of Rep. Elroy Sandquist, a Chicago Republican, who asked, just as members were about to push their switches to vote yes or no: “Would you also push your switch to turn on the electricity to take someone’s life? Because that’s what you’re doing when you pull that switch to vote yes.”

“I believed the bill was necessary,” Ryan wrote. “And so, I pressed green to vote yes.”

The bill passed, 118-41, and later sailed through the Senate and was signed into law by then-Gov. James Thompson.

Ryan would go on to serve as Speaker of the House from 1981 to 1983, when he became lieutenant governor under Gov. Jim Edgar. He would serve two terms in that office before being elected secretary of state in 1990, a post that would eventually bring about his political downfall. But the downfall wouldn’t come before he was elected Illinois’ 39th governor in 1998.

By that time, DNA evidence was becoming widely used to exonerate a number of death row inmates nationwide and the tactics used by police and prosecutors to obtain murder convictions — including the use of jailhouse snitches, phony evidence and coerced confessions — were coming under mounting scrutiny.

On the day of Ryan’s inauguration, the Chicago Tribune published the first in a series of stories about prosecutorial misconduct that identified nearly 400 murder convictions nationwide, including 46 in Illinois, that had been reversed because prosecutors either failed to turn over evidence of a defendant’s innocence or knowingly used false evidence.

But Ryan said the turning point for him came one month into his term as governor, in February 1999, when Illinois death row inmate Anthony Porter was freed after journalism students at Northwestern University uncovered evidence of his innocence. Porter had been granted a stay of execution the previous fall when he was just two days away from his execution date.

“That’s what caught my attention about the death penalty,” Ryan said in the interview. “And that — kind of a long story — that evolved, but it was the fact that I was concerned about the whole system is just prone with error. I mean, it’s just got error in every corner.”

Barely a month later, Ryan allowed an execution to go forward, the only one to occur during his administration and the last one carried out in Illinois. Andrew Kokoraleis, who had been convicted of taking part in multiple gruesome murders in the Chicago area by a group of four men who came to be known as the “Ripper Crew.”

“And that was very difficult for me to do,” Ryan recalled. “This guy was a bad guy, Korkoraleis. He was a terrible guy.”

Kokoraleis was the 12th person executed in Illinois since reinstatement of the death penalty; 11 others had been sentenced to death and later exonerated. Then in May 1999, Cook County prosecutors dismissed charges against Ronald Jones after DNA evidence excluded him as a suspect in the 1985 rape and murder for which he’d been convicted, evening the score at 12.

Pressure soon began mounting to impose a moratorium on executions in Illinois. Ryan initially opposed such a move, but after two more death row inmates were exonerated in the ensuing months he relented and announced a moratorium on Jan. 31, 2000, making him the first U.S. governor to do so.

“Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing lethal injection, no one will meet that fate,” Ryan said at a news conference.

Ryan then established a 14-member Death Penalty Moratorium Commission, made up of prosecutors, defense attorneys and others, that eventually made 85 recommendations on how to tighten the state’s death penalty law to guard against the possibility of executing innocent people.

Ryan writes at length about what happened from there – the behind-the-scenes machinations over the death penalty in the General Assembly; the friction that his decision created within the Republican Party, and with incoming President George W. Bush; and the global reaction within the anti-death penalty movement.

In the end, though, state lawmakers adopted only one of the commission’s 85 recommendations – a requirement that murder interrogations and confessions must be videotaped – prompting Ryan in the final days of his administration to issue the blanket commutation of all death sentences to life in prison.

“They didn’t want to look like they’re soft on crime,” Ryan said. “I think I talked in my book, when Jim Edgar ran against Dawn Clark Netsch, she was against the death penalty. And he made it look like she was soft on crime and just beat her to death with it. … So I didn’t know how else to do it than what I did.”

By that time, Ryan was already under federal investigation for what came to be known as the “Licenses for Bribes” scandal while he was secretary of state – granting commercial truck driver’s licenses to unqualified drivers in exchange for campaign donations. He was convicted in 2006 and served over five and a half years in federal prison.

Today, Ryan doesn’t spend much time focusing on what happens in Springfield, or on the scandals swirling around the present General Assembly.

“I’m not there anymore and I don’t know all the inside stuff that goes on,” he said. “It’s a tough job being governor and especially in a condition you got today. [Gov. J.B.] Pritzker has got his hands full with the virus and the budget and all other things that are going on. So it’s just gonna take some time to get a lot of this stuff straightened out, and it’s gonna be difficult. I’m not sure I’d want to be there now.”

Village plans to move forward with Christmas parade

BRADLEY — Although summer officially ended a week ago, Bradley is wasting no time for its Christmas preparations.

In a year marked by events not held rather than those held, the annual Christmas parade is set to happen. At least for now.

Despite the tumultuous 2020 year, the village administration announced Monday that it would like to restore some normalcy by holding its 35th annual Bradley Lighted Christmas Parade along West Broadway Street.

The parade is set for the evening of Dec. 4.

Mayor Pro Tem Mike Watson said after Monday’s Bradley Village Board meeting that plans are obviously subject to change, but as of now, the goal is to hold the parade.

“It seems like everything has been canceled or delayed. We would like to get started on plans,” he said.

The theme of this year’s parade is “Christmas Memories.”

Adventure Church expands campus

BRADLEY — Adventure Christian Church is developing plans to rehab 7.4 acres of vacant property immediately east of the church property in east Bradley.

Lead Pastor Andy Hamilton said after Monday’s Bradley village board meeting where the organization was granted a special use permit to develop the outdoor area on neighboring property which will soon be formally purchased by the church.

The church property is immediately southeast of Northfield Square mall and just off the circular road which rings around the wall.

“This has been part of our strategy from the start,” Hamilton said after the village board OK’d the permit. “Now that the inside of our facility has been renovated and remodeled, we are turning our attention to the exterior development.”

He noted that as the church grows, this land offers additional avenues for the expansion of its physical facility in future development.

When he addressed the village’s planning board recently, Hamilton said the church realizes how significant of an investment this is and what it hopes to accomplish with this acquisition is additional outdoor green space that will allow future program expansion related to church ministry programming such as summer day camps, student ministry and athletics.

The church is still developing those plans along with architect Jeff Jarvis, but Hamilton said the plan of action is to at least clear the property of debris and overgrowth next spring.

The church purchased the former 15.4-acre Hidden Cove property in 2017 and has undertaken an extensive campaign to upgrade the property. Hamilton noted that a large portion of the improvements have been completed on the interior to the facilities and now they are set to improve the outside of the complex.

The church did overhaul the pair of 18-hole miniature golf courses.

Hamilton said a first look at the property has lead the church to consider installing ball fields, but he said no final decisions have been made. As a result, there is no firm timeline as to when the property will be completed.

Student athletes and parents sue to play fall sports

Illinois is the only state in the Midwest not allowing high school football this fall. Some parents and athletes have had enough.

A class action lawsuit is being filed this week in DuPage County against the Illinois High School Association seeking for all fall sports around the state to resume. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs plan to seek a temporary restraining order against the state’s order to cancel most fall sports, including football, soccer and volleyball.

The IHSA, along with Gov. J.B. Pritzker, have remained adamant that contact sports like football, soccer and volleyball should be pushed to the spring as a result of the pandemic. Pritzker says the decision to postpone those sports is based on the recommendations of infectious disease experts.

Dave Ruggles, a parent of an athlete and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, says the governor needs to make this right for the athletes.

“We are trying to get his attention and we are trying to send a message,” Ruggles said. “He’s the guy that’s stopping this from happening.”

A group of parents and student athletes recently held a news conference outside Pritzker’s Chicago mansion. Johnathan Rodriguez, who plays soccer at Thornton Township High School, was in attendance. He worries that missing his senior season could hinder his chances at playing college soccer.

“We’re willing to do anything,” Rodriguez said. “We all know this requires effort, and we’re willing to put that forth.”

A number of high school athletes who are trying to impress college coaches on the football field left Illinois and are playing in states such as Texas and Florida.

Washington High School head football coach Darrell Crouch said his team is ready if the season resumes, but believes it may be getting too late. He blames the Pritzker administration and thinks the kids are getting short changed.

“I don’t really feel like it’s the IHSA that’s dragging their feet, it’s our governor and the department of health,” Crouch said. “I think they are the ones that have handcuffed sports, not the IHSA really.”