ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A new Illinois governor took the oath of office today. Rod Blagojevich became the first Democratic governor in 30 years. He takes over amidst a swirling controversy over the final actions of outgoing Gov. George Ryan. Last Friday, the governor pardoned four men who had been condemned to death for murder.
GOV. GEORGE RYAN: I have reviewed these cases on many occasions. And I, without a doubt, believe injustice has occurred. I believe that these many are innocent, or I wouldn't have pardoned them. I still have some faith in the system that eventually these men would have received justice in our courts. But I believe the old adage is true: justice delayed is justice denied.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That evening Leroy Orange walked slowly toward the throng of reporters, still stunned by his pardon after serving 18 years under a sentence of death for the murder of four people in 1984.
LEROY ORANGE: Did I not only...there have been innocents that have already been executed.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The next day, Orange and two of the other four men pardoned by Illinois Gov. George Ryan were cheered as they joined hundreds of advocates, family members, and media to hear an even more remarkable announcement by the governor: He was emptying out death row.
GOV. GEORGE RYAN: The capital system is haunted by the demon of error - error in determining guilt, error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die. Because of all of these reasons today, I'm commuting the sentence of all death row inmates (cheers and applause), 167 of them.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But commuting the sentences of the remaining men on death row, to life in prison without parole, Gov. Ryan was seen to have launched the most significant attack on the death penalty since the Supreme Court struck it down in 1972. The governor made the stunning announcement only two days before the end of his term - a term marked by a political corruption scandal that kept him from seeking reelection, and his work on the death penalty that brought him national and international praise. Much of the legal work on the pardons and clemencies was done by Rob Warden of Northwestern Universities Center on Wrongful Convictions. He saw the announcement as historic.
ROB WARDEN: I think this will have been one of the real turning points in the whole history of the criminal justice reform movement in this country. It's going to open a dialogue, I think, in every single jurisdiction in which capital punishment is practiced.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Republican governor, who voted to reinstate the death penalty in Illinois as a legislator in 1977, began his reexamination of capital punishment after 13 innocent men were released from death row. Several of the releases were the result of investigations by Northwestern University journalism students led by Professor David Protess.
GOV. GEORGE RYAN: I never intended to be an activist on this issue, needless to say. But soon after taking office, I watched in surprise and a amazement as the three death row inmate Anthony Porter was released from jail, as a free man, he ran into Northwestern University's Professor David Protess, Anthony Porter was 48 hours away from being wheeled into the execution chamber where the state would kill him.
Then over the next few months, there were three more exonerated men, freed because their sentences hinged on a jail house informant or some new DNA technology that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were innocent.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Growing more concerned with each release, the governor called for a moratorium on the death penalty three years ago. He then convened a blue ribbon commission to study Illinois' criminal justice system. The commission came up with 85 recommendations for reform, but none has been passed by the Illinois General Assembly in Springfield.
GOV. GEORGE RYAN: Thirteen innocent men were nearly executed, countless flaws were highlighted. We know what they are. They were studied by an elite group. The system has proved itself to be wildly inaccurate, unjust and unable to separate the innocent from the guilty. And at times a very racist system. And yet, we couldn't pass one reform in Springfield during the last legislative session.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: With the legislature's failure to act, the governor promised a review of all death row cases. Every case was presented to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board but it was the pain of the families of murder victims that made the headlines.
RHONDA BUSSLE: My son was robbed of his life at the age of 13. Never again could I see him. I just wish you all would take into consideration of not letting this man off of death row.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: As the hearings continued, the governor backed off on the idea of a mass clemency.
GOV. GEORGE RYAN: I would guess at this point that I have pretty much ruled out blanket commutations based on the hearings and the information that I've gathered so far.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: On Saturday the governor acknowledged that he had probably betrayed the families of murder victims by finally deciding for mass clemency, but quoting the late Supreme Court Justice Henry Blackmun he said:
GOV. GEORGE RYAN: "Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious, and therefore immoral, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." (Applause)
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The anti-death penalty activists and the activist defense attorneys saw the pardons and the clemencies as the culmination of years of work. But the prosecutors also saw them as the dismantling of their years of work in the criminal justice system.
DICK DEVINE: How can you in good conscience just wave this wand and take all these people off death row? It is beyond belief.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The top prosecutor in Chicago's Cook County, Dick Devine, pointed to the case of Madison Hobley, one of the men pardoned and released by Gov. Ryan on Friday.
DICK DEVINE: Madison Hobley killed his wife and their young son and five other people.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Hobley had one of the most celebrated claims of innocence on death row. Defense attorneys charged that his confession was beaten out of him by police, and they said police planted the gas can that implicated Hobley in the apartment fire that killed his wife and child and five others. Assistant State's Attorney Celeste Stack prosecuted the Hobley case and vigorously denies the charges.
CELESTE STACK: To simply take away years of hard work by the juries who anguished over their decisions and listened carefully to the evidence reaching their verdicts, to the courts - it's a travesty of justice, literally, to take this away from the court system and to put convicted murderers on the street.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Ollie Mae Dodds lost her daughter in the fire Madison Hobley was convicted of setting. She is still convinced Hobley is guilty, and was stunned by his release.
OLLIE MAE DODDS: He claimed he didn't do it, but he did.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The governor said he did this because this is fair and justice.
OLLIE MAE DODDS: Fair and just? I don't see how he could say that with the people's lives he took. How could that be just? Those peoples can't be here anymore, but he's going to walk around a free man. It just ain't right.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Jon Van Schaik's brother, a Chicago police officer, was killed in the line of duty 24 years ago. He is furious about the grant of clemency to his brother's killer.
JON VAN SCHAIK: I identified his body on a table and counted the bullet holes, it wasn't very pretty and that is permanently embedded in my memory. And I know that I expected the law to do the right thing, and it just did the opposite right now.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Devine says the governor did the wrong thing because he failed to talk to prosecutors who handled the death row cases.
DICK DEVINE: The problem with the process that this governor has undertaken is that he just jumped into bed with the defense bar, he has basically said that. He has never talked to any prosecutors.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The governor bristled at Devine's criticism.
GOV. GEORGE RYAN: What this system is about is fixing a broken system. It's not about whether the prosecutors say I'm a captive of the defense lawyers. It's about a proven fact that the system was broken. Thirteen men almost died because we had a system that nobody wanted to fix.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The governor brushed aside questions of what his effort to fix the system will mean to his legacy. But he does say he hopes the 38 other states who have a death penalty will take notice of the decisions he made in Illinois.