Keeping It Real

The emptying of Illinois’ death row

By: pardoned Illinois death row prisoner Stanley Howard

My last article (New Abolitionist, November 2002) focused on what Illinois Gov. George Ryan should do with the 140 filed clemency petitions before leaving office "to make sure that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection." I concluded that he should Keep It Real and help to bring this madness to an end by not only commuting all of Illinois’ death sentences, but also by issuing pardons to the innocent.

On January 10, 2003, after hearing two days of rumors that Ryan was planning on giving out a handful of pardons and my case was one of them, I sat anxiously in front of the TV awaiting Ryan’s announcement.

He began by highlighting and denouncing a host of serious problems that led to four wrongful convictions--problems ranging from police torture in obtaining confessions, to unreliable witnesses and evidence, to prosecutor and judicial misconduct, to ineffective assistance of counsel. Then he proceeded to pardon Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson, Leroy Orange and myself--four members of the Death Row 10.

No words could ever express how excited and happy I was at that very moment, but my happiness quickly turned to pure anger and sadness. Angry at the fact that it took 18 long years of suffering and facing death to be proven innocent. Angry that I wasn’t going to be released that day with the other three exonerated Death Row 10 members because I had yet another case to fight--a case which Ryan openly expressed willingness to pardon based on evidence of actual innocence had I filed a clemency petition in that case also. Saddened that only four were being pardoned when I personally know the number should have been much higher. And saddened that I was leaving guys who I view as family behind with an uncertain future, trapped in a broken system of death.

I was more happy for my family, friends, attorneys, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty--which includes Joan Parkin, Death Row 10 coordinator and national organizer for the CEDP--and supporters who all worked so hard and gave the Death Row 10 and me so much love and support, than I was for myself. I could never actually be happy after going through so much and knowing that no one would ever pay for the crimes viciously perpetrated against me and the other Death Row 10 members.

But when Ryan emptied Illinois’ death row by granting a blanket commutation, I was extremely happy--because this will save so many lives, and it was a major victory in proving the system is too flawed to fix. It is racist and unfair, and it cannot protect the innocent from being executed/murdered.

To Keep It Real, I honestly didn't believe Ryan would issue any pardons or grant a blanket commutation. But after winning so many other victories here in Illinois, it was a goal worth campaigning to achieve, because it fell directly in line with the overall goal of Moratorium Now/Abolition Next.

The struggle isn’t over, so I will continue to do everything within my power to make sure the Death Row 10 receive justice (new trials without the mention of a confession) and to bring an end to the death penalty.

We cannot allow this momentum to die. We must continue to turn up the heat in every state. They say death row--but Gov. Ryan said, "Hell no!!"

Please send questions and comments to: Stanley Howard, #N-71620, P.O. Box 711, Menard, IL 62259