We’ve become accustomed to reading about human rights abuses in remote, backwater prisons, across oceans and continents. But Illinois Governor Ryan’s monumental commutation of 167 death sentences on his final day in office drew world attention to the gruesome torture routinely inflicted in police interrogation rooms on the south side of Chicago. In a carefully crafted move the day prior, Ryan (R), pardoned four members of the Death Row 10–Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Aaron Patterson, and LeRoy Orange–all African American men who had been tortured, by Commander Jon Burge, into confessing to crimes they say they did not commit.
“There are many decisions he could have pardoned, but he chose to pardon the Burge guys,” says Joan Parkin, Death Row 10 coordinator for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “He used the Achilles’ heel of the State’s Attorney’s office. The public campaign had gotten a lot of sympathy. Aaron Patterson and Stanley Howard had both won torture hearings. It would all have broken loose, but Ryan pardoned them.”
Because the Burge torture cases were so egregious, Parkin says, they fueled Ryan’s boldest moves: a moratorium in 2000 and the blanket commutations in 2003. More than 60 suspects (including over 10 condemned inmates) alleged that between 1972 and 1986, Burge and his underlings tortured them to confess. All were from Chicago’s south side. All were African American. Men who’d never met one another described detectives punching them, kicking them, or suffocating them with an electric typewriter cover. The detectives used needles, Russian roulette; they pummeled suspects with a telephone receiver. They electro-shocked their testicles or hung them out a third-story window–all to extract confessions.
The police department’s own Office of Professional Standards investigated and confirmed these charges, and terminated Burge in 1993. (He retired with a full pension and lives in Florida, where, critics say, he spends days tooling around on his pleasure boat, the Vigilante.) Judge Paul Biebel has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate whether there are sufficient grounds to press felony charges against Burge and his officers. Victims’ attorneys have filed a motion to disqualify all Cook County judges from trying these cases. Why? Twenty-six out of 33 judges took statements from Burge’s victims when they worked for the State’s Attorneys’ office; a handful testified against the torture victims at trial.
Once a staunch supporter of capital punishment, Ryan considers himself an accidental activist and a modern-day abolitionist in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. “The system has proved itself to be wildly inaccurate, unjust, unable to separate the innocent from the guilty and, at times, racist,” Ryan said in his last moments as governor.
“Ryan helped pass Illinois’ death penalty law, and signed plenty of death warrants as governor. But with that first execution–where it was his hand pushing the button–he understood the seriousness of the death penalty,” says Abe Bonowitz of Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Ryan began to doubt the fairness of the death penalty in 1998 when Northwestern University Professor David Protess, investigator Paul Ciolino, and a team of journalism students proved Anthony Porter’s innocence 48 hours before his scheduled execution. The state of Illinois had an abysmal record: it had executed 12 inmates and exonerated 13 (now 17) since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977.
Over two thirds of Illinois’ (former) death row inmates were African American. “But the real racism in the death penalty is not in the race of the murderer, but in the race of the victim. Kill a white person and you are far more likely to get the death penalty than if you kill a person of color,” Bonowitz says.
A Maryland study released in January found that 80 percent of the state’s death row inmates were convicted for killing white victims. “When it comes to the death penalty, white lives are considered more valuable than black lives in Maryland,” Richard Dieter says of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Ryan also indicated the U.S. needs to take a serious look at its human-rights record. A week later, Mexico filed charges in the World Court calling for urgent stays of execution for 51 Mexican nationals serving capital sentences. Mexico claims the U.S. violated the Vienna convention by denying Mexican prisoners the right to contact their consulate.
“If we don’t uphold international law here,” Ryan said, “we can’t expect our citizens to be protected outside of the United States. And I think that’s especially important in the world today.”