Police tortured confession
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Illinois death row inmates spared
NBC NEWS AND NEWS SERVICES
CHICAGO, Jan. 10 — Outgoing Gov. George Ryan, who declared a moratorium on death-row executions three years ago, pardoned four death-penalty inmates Friday. NBC News has learned that he also plans to commute the death sentences of at least 120 inmates. The four who were pardoned said their confessions were tortured out of them by Chicago police.
SOURCES ADVISING the governor told NBC’s Jim Avila that Ryan, a Republican, has decided to commute the sentences to life in prison for at least three-quarters of the state’s death row inmates.
A blanket clemency, one that reduces the sentences for everyone on death row, is still “a live option,” they added. Ryan, who leaves office Monday, was expected to announce his decision Saturday.
On Friday, he pardoned Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley, Leroy Orange and Stanley Howard. All of them were on death row for at least 12 years. Orange was on death row the longest, more than 17 years.
“I have reviewed these cases and I believe a manifest injustice has occurred,” he said. “I have reviewed these cases and I believe these men are innocent. I still have some faith in the system that eventually these men would have received justice in our courts but the old adage is true: Justice delayed is justice denied.”
All but Howard were expected to be released from prison Friday, Ryan said. Howard will still serve time for a separate crime.
“We have evidence from four men, who did not know each other, all getting beaten and tortured and convicted on the basis of the confessions they allegedly provide,” Ryan said. “They are perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system.”
Ryan spread the blame in his hour-long speech, calling the state’s criminal justice system “inaccurate, unjust and unable to separate the innocent from the guilty, and at times very racist.”
He blamed “rogue cops,” zealous prosecutors, incompetent defense lawyers and judges who rule on technicalities rather than on what is right. He also criticized the Illinois Legislature for failing to enact his proposals to reform the death penalty system.
The pardons were announced during Ryan’s speech at DePaul University, home to an anti-death penalty center founded by Andrea Lyon, a lawyer who represents Hobley.
The sources told NBC that Ryan was up until 1 a.m. making his decision, and that calls of support included one from former South African President Nelson Mandela.
The moves cap Ryan’s three-year campaign to highlight flaws in the state’s capital punishment system.
Figures for 2001, the most recent available, show Illinois ranks eighth in the nation in terms of death row inmates.
Ryan is expected to announce his clemency decision on Saturday during a speech at Northwestern University’s law school, which has led the attack on the state’s capital punishment system.
Northwestern journalism students have conducted investigations that freed a handful of inmates. Northwestern professors and lawyers have called for Ryan to issue a blanket clemency, commuting the sentences of most death row inmates to life in prison.
“I don’t think he would come and give a speech that was going to greatly disappoint us,” said Rob Warden, executive director of the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions. “Let’s put it this way: He’s not giving the speech at the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.”
Ryan declared a moratorium after 13 men were freed from Illinois’ death row because new evidence exonerated them or because there were flaws in the way they were convicted.
The most recent precedent for a blanket clemency came 16 years ago when the governor of New Mexico commuted the death sentences of the state’s five death row inmates.
Of the four men pardoned Friday, Patterson says he was tortured into falsely confessing to murder after police threatened him with a gun, beat him and tried to suffocate him in 1986. He previously turned down a deal to admit guilt and drop his claim of police torture in exchange for freedom.
Hobley was convicted of murder and aggravated arson in the deaths of seven people, including his wife and infant son. He says he made a false confession after he was beaten and suffocated.
Orange was sentenced to die for taking part in the stabbing of his former girlfriend, her 10-year-old son and two others. The conviction came despite Orange’s description of torture and testimony that his half-brother, Leonard Kidd, was the one who stabbed the victims. Kidd, also on death row, claims he, too, was tortured into confessing.
Howard was convicted of murder, armed robbery and rape, among other crimes. He says he is innocent of the crimes, but that he confessed after he was handcuffed to a wall ring, beaten and suffocated by police in November 1984.
It remains to be seen whether Ryan will be remembered more for his stand against capital punishment or for a corruption scandal that shattered his career and crippled the state Republican Party he once led.
A criminal trial is expected to get under way next week on federal prosecutor’s allegations that Ryan’s former chief aide and his campaign committee illegally diverted state resources for campaign purposes. A number of Ryan’s close advisers have been indicted, and federal prosecutors have alleged the governor knew of attempts to conceal potential wrongdoing from investigators.
Ryan has not been charged.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.