How we got here

By: Marlene Martin

The emptying of death row in Illinois is a huge victory for the abolitionist movement. It certainly is the biggest victory against the death penalty since the Supreme Court banned all executions in 1972.

So how did this come about, and what does it say about where we are in our fight to end capital punishment in this country?

We should recognize how important the efforts of death penalty opponents were in setting the stage for a Republican governor--who came to office with no intention of paying any attention to the issue of the death penalty--to make the most sweeping changes on this issue in 30 years.

George Ryan admitted that the issue was not even on his radar scr een four years ago. It was the work of activists, lawyers, journalists, family members and death row prisoners themselves who put it there.

Ever since winning the moratorium three years ago, groups like the Campaign to End the Death Penalty have been pushing for abolition and for justice for the Death Row 10, a group of African American men who were sent to death row largely on the basis of confessions that had been tortured from them.

But things really took a turn in March 2002, when Ryan said in a speech in Oregon that he was considering blanket commutations. The Campaign, along with other groups, began circulating a petition urging Ryan to do that--and to come out against capital punishment. We organized a citywide rally for commutations that drew more than 100 people.

Last October, the Illinois clemency board held hearings on prisoners’ petitions for commutations and pardons, where prosecutors organized the family members of murder victims to call for vengeance. This had a major impact on public sentiment. With the climate becoming more and more tense, some opponents of the death penalty began setting their sights lower--Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, for example, came out against blanket commutations, fearing a backlash against the abolitionist cause.

But we didn’t give up. On the second day of the hearings, the Campaign held a press conference with family members, exonerated prisoners and others to try to turn the focus back to our case--that the death penalty is no solution to crime.

At a Campaign rally calling for commutations held months before Ryan’s decision, Larry Marshall, a death penalty lawyer and head of the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions, said we were at a critical time and that we should all prepare to be busy every week until Ryan left office.

He was right. The next several months were a flurry of activity to try to keep the pressure on Ryan to do the right thing. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty he! ld forums and press conferences; organized a death row family members’ letter to Ryan that 78 people signed; helped organize death row family members to meet with Ryan; and organized a visit to Pontiac’s death row with the Rev. Jesse Jackson to meet with members of the Death Row 10 and other inmates.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions organized 700 lawyers nationwide to sign onto a letter urging blanket commutations, and an event on December 15 brought together 36 exonerated death row prisoners at the Northwestern law school to urge clemency. A day later, these former prisoners participated in a relay march--harking back to the civil rights movement--in which they carried a letter to Ryan from the state prison in Joliet all the way to the door of Ryan’s office. That night, Ryan, along with other legislators, were invited to a performance of the play The Exonerated.

Ryan admitted that he vacillated on his decision, saying that he felt enormous pressure from both sides. In particular, prosecutors, led by Joe Birkett of DuPage County and Dick Devine of Chicago’s Cook County, lashed out at Ryan.

But the fact that the state’s attorneys and the legislature dug in their heels against making any substantial changes in the way the death penalty system works in Illinois certainly weighed heavily in Ryan’s final decision. In his two speeches, he pointed out that lawmakers had refused to take action on any of the reform proposals he had put forward--meaning that the broken system would be left intact if Ryan didn’t act himself.

Ryan is being called a hero. But we should remember what he himself said--that he was "just doing the right thing." He made the decision, but the case for emptying death row had been made to him by many, many people. They deserve to be thought of as heroes, too.