George Ryan

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan speaks during a memorial service for Nelson Mandela at the Beloved Community Christian Church of God in Christ, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, in Chicago. Mandela was buried Sunday in South Africa.

CHICAGO — In one of his first public appearances since being released from prison this year, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan told attendees at a memorial service Sunday that Nelson Mandela played a role in his 2003 decision to empty death row.

His nearly five-minute speech — mostly stories about meeting Mandela in 2000 — at the Chicago church where U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush preaches, was met with hearty applause, particularly as Ryan, of Kankakee, described commuting the sentences of Illinois' death row inmates. The move, which put Ryan in the national spotlight, eventually led to the state abolishing the death penalty in 2011.

The event, where Mandela's portrait hung above the pulpit, was billed as the "people's tribute" and included speeches by Rush, fellow Chicago Democrat U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, Nation of Islam officials, community leaders and Chicago-based consuls general from several countries.

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