The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Governor vacates all Illinois death sentences

Jan 20, 2003

On January 10, Governor George Ryan of Illinois pardoned four men on Death Row, wiping out their convictions. All four men whom Governor Ryan pardoned had been tortured by the police into confessing crimes that the evidence had shown – even at the time – that they didn't commit. Three of the men had been tortured in a police headquarters under the command of Jon Burge. Burge had directed his cops to nearly suffocate the men, as well as to use electric shock to extract confessions.

Burge was eventually fired because of such methods, but he was never tried for torture. Nor did any prosecutor make an attempt to look into the convictions. For ten years, Burge enjoyed a comfortable retirement in Florida while many of his victims spent the decade on Death Row for crimes they didn't commit.

Governor Ryan had been goaded to take some action as the result of all the publicity surrounding the earlier release of 13 men from the Illinois Death Row. Those men were not freed through the actions of anyone in the "criminal justice" system, but of prisoner advocates who proved their innocence through the use of DNA results. At the time, Ryan suspended all executions.

Regarding the men he decided to pardon, Ryan said, "Here we have four more men who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die by the state for crimes the courts should have seen they did not commit." He attacked the prosecution in the case of Leroy Orange, one of the four men pardoned, "The prosecution has opposed Orange's repeated requests on procedural grounds and even seeks to bar evidence of the torture that led to Orange's confession." And he denounced what happened in the jury room in the case of Madison Hobley, another of the four, "The foreman of the jury, a suburban police officer, intimidated some jurors by laying his gun on the jury table and announcing 'We'll reach a verdict.'"

In addition to the four pardons, Ryan also commuted the death sentences of all the people on death row to life in prison, without possibility of parole – 167 people.

Explaining this action, Ryan said, "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."

Ryan was immediately subject to vile denunciations or extravagant praise for what he did.

Wouldn't it be normal, when someone hears that innocent men have systematically been put to death, to want to prevent that from happening again? Even a death penalty advocate, with even a trace of integrity, would want to provide a wholesale commutation, seeing how the system had conspired to put to death people it knew to be innocent. No conviction, in such a situation, is without suspicion.

What Ryan did should not be viewed as something extraordinary. If it is, it's only because this "criminal justice" system is so corrupt and vicious.

The capitalist system is built on vast inequalities and subjects millions of people to a miserable life of poverty. The death penalty is part and parcel of a state apparatus that uses force to keep workers and the poor down.

Certainly workers, above all the poorest layers, are the ones who are often victimized by crime and they want an end to it. Police eager to "solve" cases and advance their careers, plant and extort false evidence. Prosecutors take these cases to trial knowing they are false in the desire to make a name for themselves. And prosecutors and politicians stir up support for the death penalty, which is supposed to prevent crime and give "closure" to the victims.

It does neither. It simply remains a barbaric act of a state which carries out murder under the cover of law. In a society based on exploitation, divided into classes and racist to its core, the death penalty must inevitably lead to the execution of innocent people and the dehumanization of everyone else.