Students lobby Ryan for pardons

By Thom Gaulkin

In the eleventh hour of his term, students from the University of Chicago Law School have called for Illinois Governor George Ryan to commute all Illinois death row sentences to life without parole.

Over 140 students from most law schools in the state signed a letter to the governor drafted at the University, while three U of C students published an opinion piece in the Chicago Sun Times.

Third-year law students Jennifer Escalante and Elizabeth Erickson drafted the letter to the governor to add students’ voices to those of professors, lawyers, and judges that had already been heard.

“In our studies, we are constantly reminded of the importance of a fair criminal justice system,” the letter begins. “The seriousness of capital punishment should demand the highest standards of our legal system.”

The letter goes on to identify the commutation of sentences as “the final step in this difficult journey” that began with Ryan’s declaration of a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000.

Escalante explained that the letter was aimed less at the death penalty itself than at its current implementation in Illinois.

“There are problems in the system itself that need to be addressed which the General Assembly is not going to address,” Escalante said.

“The blanket commutation would address these concerns for those now on Death Row, while still respecting the victims families’ demand that the prisoners never be set free.”

“We tried to write the letter so that those who wouldn’t want to abolish the death penalty could still feel comfortable signing,” Escalante added.

The op-ed piece, published in the Dec. 21 Sun-Times, was also written by U of C Law students Alyse Bertenthal, Elizabeth Hess and Clare Pinkert.

Their article asserts that their review of 161 requests for clemency submitted to the governor “yields strong evidence of the systemic flaws plaguing the Illinois system of capital punishment.”

Adding to their analysis of the petitions, the students wrote that the use of clemency power has strong historical precedent. Citing its exercise from Thomas Jefferson to recent governors of other states, they suggested that Ryan would not be the first to use executive clemency power to “correct systemic injustice.”

“If Ryan commutes Illinois death sentences to life imprisonment,” they said, “he would be joining Governors Tony Anaya of New Mexico, who commuted that state’s entire Death Row in 1986; Winthrop Rockefeller of Arkansas, who did the same in 1970; and Robert Holmes of Oregon, who commuted the death sentences of every condemned prisoner who came before him.”

The death penalty became the central concern of Ryan’s governorship after he announced the moratorium on executions not long after taking office.

Since Illinois resumed capital punishment in 1977, the state’s courts have found that 13 condemned men were wrongly convicted, while 12 have been executed.

Students have played an important role in exposing problems with the Illinois criminal justice system and the death penalty. In 1999, a Northwestern journalism class revealed the wrongful imprisonment of several Death Row inmates. The discovery led to the governor’s declaration of a moratorium and the establishment of the Ryan Commission on Capital Punishment, which offered 85 recommendations to improve the capital punishment system in Illinois.

At the time, Ryan seemed to favor blanket commutations. “I don’t know how I could pick and choose,” he said in September. “That’s why I have to determine whether it’s going to be for everybody or for nobody.”

But in October, following the release of the Commission’s findings, each of the 160 Death Row inmates was offered a one-hour hearing at Ryan’s behest, suggesting that the governor would be more selective about offering clemency. After meeting with the families of victims and further consultations with his advisers, however, the governor backed away from his public openness to general clemency.

The governor-elect, Rod Blagojevich, has already indicated an unwillingness to grant blanket commutations, making the final days of Ryan’s governorship even more critical to the inmates’ advocates.

Ryan is set to deliver two separate addresses on the death penalty this Friday and Saturday. Some capital punishment foes are taking that as an indication that Ryan will commute at least some of the sentences and even pardon some prisoners before he leaves office on Monday.

Announcing the addition of Saturday’s speech, the Chicago Tribune reported Thursday that Ryan’s press secretary, Dennis Culloton, said that the governor has been reviewing each Death Row case” and he is going to do his level best to act in the interest of fairness and justice.”

The Tribune also reported that Ryan’s aides have been contacting advocates of some Death Row prisoners, asking about the inmates immediate prospects were they to be freed.

Despite that possibility, Escalante was clear that though she would welcome even partial clemency, the problems suggested by the Ryan Commission extend beyond the situation facing current inmates.

“That would definitely be a start, but there is more to be done,” Escalante said. “Even a blanket commutation would only be a start; we would still want to see the bulk of the Commission’s recommendations put into place.”