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January 2003
1/31/2003 10:05 AM

Minnesota Advocates Commends Illinois Governor Ryan's Decision to Commute 167 Death Sentences
11 January 2003

On January 11, 2003, Illinois Governor George Ryan made history by commuting the sentences of every death row inmate in the state. Commentators compared Ryan's action to the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia that overturned the sentences of some 600 death row inmates across the United States. Ryan's actions sparked debate across the country and criticism at home from families of victims.

On January 31, 2000, Governor Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois after 13 death row inmates were exonerated. He then appointed a Commission on Capital Punishment to study the state's death penalty system with a view to determining what reforms would render it fair and reliable. The Commission issued its report in April 2002. While a narrow majority favored abolishing the death penalty, the Commission was "unanimous in the belief that no system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no innocent person is ever again sentenced to death."

After three years of study since declaring the moratorium, Ryan said that he had no choice but to commute the sentences. In a speech at Northwestern University, where some inmates who had received full pardons a few days earlier were in attendance, Ryan said that the Illinois death penalty system was "haunted by the demon of error, error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die."

Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, which sent a letter to Governor Ryan asking him to commute all the sentences of all petitioners, commends Governor Ryan's action. The capricious and arbitrary administration of the death penalty is one of the most serious human rights issues in the United States. Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights' Death Penalty Project is actively engaged in the struggle against the death penalty and encourages others to learn more and become involved.