Law School students see hope in Ryan’s decision on death penalty

By Molly Schranz

A petition drafted by two University of Chicago Law School students saw vindication when Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all 167 inmates on death row in the state of Illinois during a speech at Northwestern University Law School on Saturday. The letter to the governor was signed by over 140 students from law schools throughout the state.

“We’ve worked non-stop all fall,” said Elizabeth Erickson, a law student and co-author of the petition to Ryan. “You sort of feel like you’ve had a victory this past Saturday but you’re not done.”

Ryan’s announcement, which came at the end of his controversial term, was his second of the weekend.

On Friday Ryan pardoned four inmates while speaking at DePaul Law School.

“I believe he did it based on what he thought was the right thing to do,” said Jennifer Escalante, co-author of the petition and a law student who works at the MacArthur Center for Justice, of the governor’s blanket commutation.

University of Chicago law students were part of a larger network of university students in Illinois working on behalf of death row inmates. Two classes at Northwestern University had been working on the exoneration of two death row inmates for the past several years. Both men, Aaron Patterson and Leroy Orange, were pardoned on Friday on account of having been forced to deliver false confessions.

“The Illinois capital punishment system is broken,” Ryan said in the speech. He went on to quote former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, saying, “From this day forward I no longer shall tinker with the machines of death.”

The student-led effort was supported by strong advocacy among faculty at law schools throughout the state and was praised for its initiative.

“What the law students did was quite wonderful. It’s important for law students to make their voices heard, that they went across the state and gathered so many signatures,” said Jean Maclean Snyder, lecturer at the University Law School and the MacArthur Justice Center.

Regarding the motivation of Ryan’s final actions, there has been praise as well as suspicion.

He is currently being investigated for a scandal dealing with drivers’ licenses granted in exchange for bribes while he was secretary of state, and some have suggested that he used the death penalty as an opportunity to deflect personal criticism.

Still, many maintain that Ryan’s actions were larger than any personal issue.

“In the current political climate you have to pinch yourself,” said Snyder, who attended the Northwestern speech. “One person, a single act, made such a difference.”

Although Ryan began his career as a conservative Republican who voted in favor of the death penalty, in 1999 he issued a moratorium on executions in Illinois. Later he formed a commission that suggested 80 improvements for the capital punishment system. None were approved by legislature.