Illinois Commutations

March, 2003
System reforms weren’t meant to kill death penalty
Cook County Judge Bertina Lampkin sentenced Teodoro Baez to death last week for a grisly 1999 double homicide. While the judge — who never sentenced a defendant to death before in her 17-year career — felt the brutality of Baez’s crimes deserves the ultimate punishment, it is a decision that the legal system in Illinois continues to deem itself incapable of enforcing. Four years ago, in the face of shocking instances of men being sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit, then-Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on executions and formed a panel to investigate what needs to be done to reform the system. The panel studied the matter for more than 2 years and offered up 85 recommendations, some vital, some unnecessary. After initial waffling, the legislature in Springfield eventually made a number of the most important into law. DNA testing is more available to defendants. Police must videotape interrogations of murder suspects. Condemned prisoners have more time to appeal. Judges are allowed to bar executions of suspects whose convictions are based on a lone informant. If more changes need to be made, we should make them. We are not comfortable with the law being suspended indefinitely by executive fiat. The people of Illinois support the death penalty — judges are sentencing criminals to death, and the families of victims are expecting those sentences to be carried out. Gov. Blagojevich says there’s no rush to resume executions until the reforms are shown to be effective. While in jail, Baez stabbed a guard in the throat. There is more at stake here than just the rights of the condemned. The governor should lay down criteria for his determining whether the reforms are working so Illinoisans can get an idea of when the state might resume enforcing the law.

Illinois – Outgoing governor empties death row of 167 killers

Gov. Ryan ignited national and even international debate Saturday by taking all 167 prisoners off Illinois’ Death Row, blowing away the modern record of eight commutations set by former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste. Ryan gave 160 men and four women life sentences without the possibility of parole. Three men received reduced sentences that could allow them to be released shortly. A day earlier, Ryan gave outright pardons to four other men on Death Row, bringing to 171 the total spared potential lethal injections. The extraordinary move prompted outrage and anguish from prosecutors and some murder victims’ families, who received letters from Ryan on Saturday morning telling them what he was about to do. Cook County State’s Atty. Richard Devine called the decision "stunningly disrespectful to the hundreds of families who lost their loved ones to these Death Row murderers." With his choice, Devine said, Ryan had "once again ripped open the emotional scabs of these grieving families." Peoria County State’s Atty. Kevin Lyons said Ryan is "in hate with" justice. "It was so offensive for him to compare himself to Lincoln and say, `I am a friend to these men on Death Row,’" Lyons said. "My reply is, yes, your excellency, you certainly are. Now go home before you make any more friends who are murdering the good people of Illinois." Some family members and friends of murder victims said they believed Ryan was merely trying to shift attention away from the corruption scandal that has plagued his administration and led to criminal charges against top aides. "I just think it’s political tactics," said Helen Sophie Rajca of Bolingbrook, whose 2 brothers were shot and stabbed to death in 1979. Ryan said his decision would outrage many people, including his wife, because one of the men whose sentence he commuted killed a neighbor of the Ryans. "My wife is even angry and disappointed with me, just like many of the victims will be," Ryan said. "They have a right, I would guess, to feel betrayed." That’s because Ryan told them he would not grant a "blanket commutation," then changed his mind. "My obligations are far broader than their desires or their wishes," Ryan said. Ryan’s successor, Gov.-elect Rod Blagojevich, did not like the going-away present. "A blanket clemency in my view is a big mistake," Blagojevich said. "There is no one-size-fits-all approach to those cases. We’re talking about murderers on Death Row, and I just think this decision to do blanket clemency is wrong." Ryan posed for pictures Saturday with former "MASH" television show actor Mike Farrell–just one of many celebrities around the world who have lobbied Ryan to commute the death sentences. Calls and letters have come in from South African leaders Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu; from the Vatican, the European Union and the governments of Poland and Mexico. "For a guy like me to get a call from Nelson Mandela, that’s pretty impressive," Ryan said. "Hell, I know some of those people are guilty," Ryan said. "But you can’t pick and choose. That’s what drove us to mass commutations. How many more cases of wrongful convictions have to occur before we can all agree that this system in Illinois is broken?" Prosecutors around the state slammed Ryan on Saturday, saying he should let the courts handle the cases. Some Ryan critics say the federal probe of corruption in Ryan’s offices motivated him to stage this weekend’s attention-grabbing events. "That had nothing to do with this at all," said Ryan, who has not been charged with any crimes. Using words like "liar" and "criminal" and "dictator," family members of murder victims and prosecutors across the suburbs were nearly unanimous in their condemnation of Gov. George Ryan for his commutation of death sentences. Complaints ranged from the venue in which Ryan chose to make his announcement to accusations that he had promised families not to grant blanket commutations. "This should be a criminal act," said Dawn Pueschel, sister of murder victim Dean Pueschel. "This is a crime to do what the governor has done." "He spit in our faces," said Katy Salhani, sister of murder victim Debra Evans. Ryan’s remarks roused a packed lecture hall at the law school of Northwestern University, whose professors and students have helped free numerous innocent men from death row. The audience included international media, parents, spouses and children of the once-condemned, and numerous men freed from death row. Ryan, who voted to reinstate Illinois’ death penalty in 1977, had done a nearly full reversal by 2000, when he halted all executions after it became clear the state’s capital punishment system was troubled. After announcing he would consider blanket commutation last year, a marathon series of more than 140 clemency hearings was held before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. In the end, the board recommended clemency for 10 cases, but state laws don’t require Ryan to follow that. They featured tearful testimony from relatives of victims, many of whom accused Ryan of forcing them to relive the crimes. They urged Ryan to let the state kill those convicted of killing their loved ones. They also brought the message to Ryan in news conferences and meetings with Ryan. Gov.-elect Rod Blagojevich said his administration, which takes power Monday, will conduct a review of the governor’s clemency powers, although no legal experts believe Ryan’s commutations can be undone. Citing the fact that many convicts did not claim innocence, victims’ relatives blasted Ryan Saturday. "All he talked about is the death penalty issue, which, for this governor, is to be expected, said Sam Evans of Bridgeport, whose daughter Debra Evans was killed in her Addison apartment in 1995, along with 2 of her children. A fetus also was cut from Evans’ womb, and that child is now 7 years old. Jacqueline Williams and Fedell Caffey were convicted of the crime and sentenced to die. "He is not very concerned with individuals, just with issues," Evans said.

Notorious killers get huge break
When Gov. Ryan issued a blanket commutation to every man and woman on Death Row in Illinois, he knowingly spared the lives of some of the most vicious killers in the state’s 185-year history. The governor acknowledged as much Saturday but said that fundamental flaws in the system necessitated his actions. Here are some of the most infamous killers saved by Ryan:
Danny Edwards
To make the point that he has been personally touched by the horror of murder, Ryan on Saturday described the murder of an old family friend, Kankakee businessman Stephen B. Small, in 1987, in a kidnapping plot. Danny Edwards, who at the time was a small-time drug dealer and electrician in Kankakee, was found guilty of burying Small alive in a wooden box. Edwards made an air hole in the box and apparently thought Small could survive for some time while he–Edwards–attempted to extort a $1 million ransom from Small’s wealthy family. But Small died within four hours of being buried. While conceding that the evidence against his client was "overwhelming"–Edwards was seen building the box, and his fingerprints were found inside–defense attorney Thomas Allen expressed surprise at the quick guilty verdict, calling the jury "the coldest I’ve ever seen."

Henry Brisbon
Brisbon and three other men decided to rob somebody. When they couldn’t find the right pedestrian to rob in Kankakee, they drove toward Chicago on Interstate 57. While riding along, they came up with the idea of robbing motorists by staging phony accidents. One of the killers tricked motorists out of their cars by asking them to inspect minor collision damage, then led them to Brisbon, who brandished the shotgun and robbed and shot them. Betty Lou Harmon, 29, of suburban Darien, was forced to undress at gunpoint. She ran away, but was caught by Sanders, who led her to Brisbon, who fatally shot her in a field. An engaged North Side couple, Dorothy Cerny and James Schmidt, both 25, who were returning from a family gathering in Matteson, also were shot to death by Brisbon after being stripped of their valuables. Brisbon told the couple to "kiss your last kiss" before firing shotgun blasts into their backs as they lay on the side of the highway. But Brisbon was not on Death Row for the I-57 murders. He was put there because he used a sharpened spoon to kill another inmate while in prison.
Fedell Caffey & Jacqueline Williams
Caffey and Williams decided they wanted a baby. So they stabbed to death a pregnant woman, Debra Evans, in her Addison apartment and cut her nearly full-term fetus from her body, according to prosecutors. To eliminate witnesses, they also murdered Evans’ 10-year-old daughter, Samantha, and 8-year-old son, Joshua. Another child, Jordan, was spared in the 1995 murder–children under the age of 2 aren’t likely to be good witnesses. And the newborn boy also survived. Fortunately, Jordan’s grandfather, Sam Evans, says Jordan has no recollection today of the horrors he witnessed.
Gabriel Solache
In an eerily similar case, little 2-month-old Guadalupe Soto and her toddler brother Santiago had both parents ripped away by vicious killers who wanted to steal a baby in 1998. One of them was Solache, who agreed to help kill Jacinta and Mariano Soto and snatch the baby so Adriana Mejia could pretend it was hers. Mejia targeted the Bucktown family after seeing Jacinta with the children at a local health clinic. She followed them home on a bus to see where they lived. Early the next morning, Solache, Mejia and Arturo DeLeon-Reyes surprised the family, stabbing the parents more than 60 times as the sleepy toddler looked on. Mejia and DeLeon-Reyes got life in prison.
Luther Casteel
At JB’s Pub in Elgin in 2001, Casteel was booted out for harassing female customers and employees. Roaring drunk and enraged, he shot straight home, shaved his hair into a mohawk and changed into military fatigues, armed himself with several guns and returned to the bar. Screaming, "I am a natural born killer," he shot bartender Jeffrey Weides and customer Richard Bartlett to death and wounded 16 others before being wrestled to the ground by bar patrons and employees. At his trial, Casteel almost dared a Kane County jury to impose the death penalty. "I’m not someone who asks for mercy or pity for my actions," he said during a stunning half hour of testimony. "I have absolutely no fear of anything anyone can put upon me."
Latasha Pulliam
In 1991, 6-year-old Shenosha Richard was playing in her South Side Chicago neighborhood when she was approached by Pulliam and Pulliam’s boyfriend, Dwight Jordan. She went with them after they purchased her a bag of chips and promised to take her to a movie. At Pulliam’s apartment, over several hours, Pulliam and Jordan sexually assaulted the girl with a shoe polish applicator and a hammer, and then used the hammer to pulverize her skull, according to prosecutors. Pulliam also beat and strangled the girl. Attorneys for Pulliam said she was drug-crazed at the time, but a court psychologist described her as "a female John Gacy" who got sexual satisfaction from hurting someone weaker than she.

Op-Ed – George Ryan: The Great Emancipator
by Aaron J. Veselenak

"George Ryan: The Great Emancipator." This is how recently-retired Illinois governor George Ryan wants to be remembered in history. Ryan, in case you haven’t heard, emptied his state’s death row in one fell swoop two days before leaving office, dramatically claiming the death penalty in Illinois to be too error-prone to continue. This, however, was not the real reason the governor pardoned four and commuted all other 167 death sentences.

No, George Ryan acted purely out of self-interest. This glory-seeker was bent on maintaining national and world-wide fame and praise by those who condemn capital punishment the loudest: Hollywood celebrities, past and present world leaders, top journalists and other liberal elitists. How do I know this? Well, as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. One only has to look at the good governor’s carefully calculated actions.

When Ryan issued a moratorium on executions three years ago due to some highly-publicized mistaken convictions, he received an incredible amount of praise. Some criticized the action because it put on hold the sentences of the large majority who were clearly guilty. The loud cheering, however, muted the criticism. This decision may initially have been out of principle but the steady stream of accolades had an intoxicating effect on the governor. He was "bold", "courageous" and “just". Did the governor anticipate such unabated praise? Being an astute politician, probably, but we should give him the benefit of the doubt at this point.

As Ryan’s term continued it became clear that he would not have a second one due to growing evidence of corruption by top aides and possibly the governor himself, earlier, as secretary of state. Many critics claim Ryan’s sweeping decision to spare all condemned was to shroud or deflect attention from the ongoing investigations. I disagree. Having been thoroughly seduced by continuous praise there need not have been an ulterior motive. Any governor absent of scandal but devoid of principle could make such a decision.

Why did governor Ryan grant pardons to the four with questionable (though prosecutors and victims’ families disagree) convictions a day before sparing the rest? Why not all at once?

There was no logical reason for these separate actions unless the goal was to soften the coming criticism by casting doubt on the entire group. As they say, timing is everything.

Why did governor Ryan make the announcements of each decision at De Paul University and Northwestern University (bastions of anti-capital punishment sentiment), respectively, where he would receive loud cheers and standing ovations? Why not from the state capital or the governor’s mansion – neutral and more appropriate sites? It is quite obvious: these were shameless acts of self-promotion meant to garner maximum glorification. Ryan of course had photo ops with celebrities such as MASH star Mike Farrel, the most rabid of anti-capital punishment zealots.

Can we blame George Ryan for his blatant opportunism? After all, he’s been compared to the most famous Illinoisan – Abraham Lincoln – and the Boston Globe and other notables have compared the death penalty to slavery. Wouldn’t it be easy for anyone, under such a powerful spell of praise, to conclude that capital punishment supporters are on the wrong side of history and do the right thing? Not if one cares about the families and friends of those murdered or fears the strong possibility that some of the saved killers will kill again.

The most insidious aspect of Ryan’s exercise in self-aggrandizement is that it came at the expense of the victims’ surviving loved ones. The great ripple effect of pain created by the initial evil act of murder turns into a life-long tidal wave of pain and misery for surviving family. For them the agony never goes away. Ryan’s act victimizes them twice. If governor Ryan truly cared about justice he would’ve made two separate piles in his review of individual cases of the condemned. One pile would have maybe ten or fifteen with concerns legitimate enough to warrant commutation to life imprisonment without parole. The other pile would have 150 or so with no doubt of culpability. For these, the death sentences would resume. Let’s face it though: this route, no matter how responsible and fair, just wouldn’t have had the impact Ryan was seeking.

Finally, here is a thought to ponder concerning the governor’s blanket commutations and a question nearly completely ignored by Ryan’s defenders and critics alike: the threat to public safety. There is a strong likelihood that some of those spared by Ryan will kill again. Life without parole doesn’t guarantee anything. Laws change, prisoners escape and there will always be the possibility of guards and other inmates being killed. Slim chance? Not really. There are many examples in history where governors or judges set death sentences aside only to see those killers murder new innocents. Kenneth Allen McDuff murdered three teenagers in Texas in 1966. His death sentence, along with hundreds of others nationwide, was commuted by the Supreme Court’s landmark Furman v Georgia decision in 1972. Released due to prison overcrowding in the late 1980’s, McDuff went on to kill around a dozen women before his capture, second death sentence and ultimate execution in1998. McDuff wasn’t the only spared Furman inmate to kill again.

If innocents die by any of the 171 saved by the heroic George Ryan, their blood will smear his hands as well. This "highly courageous" decision by the governor was not courageous at all. It is even doubtful that it was made at the very end before leaving office as Ryan claims. People should see it for exactly what it was: incredibly callous and utterly selfish, done at the expense of the victims’ families and possibly (let’s hope not) future victims.

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