(Editor's note: On Saturday, one day after this story went to press, outgoing Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all 167 inmates on Illinois' death row. Most of those condemned prisoners now will spend life in prison without parole. Gov. Ryan said he acted out of a moral obligation, since the death penalty system, in his words, is "haunted by the demon of error." Some of those opposed to Ryan's decision said he acted more out of self-concern. They say he's trying to build a "legacy," to distract from a political scandal that is following him out of office.
Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Illinois' Republican governor, George Ryan, Friday voided the death sentences of four inmates. The one-term governor, who leaves office Monday, said there is ample proof that police tortured the men to obtain confessions and that other evidence against them was either flawed or non-existent.
Ryan said the criminal justice system failed Aaron Patterson, Leroy Orange, Madison Hobley and Stanley Howard. He called the convictions of the four men "perfect examples of what's terribly wrong" with his state's legal system.
"I believe that these men are innocent, or I wouldn't have pardoned them," Ryan asserted.
The governor said that, while he is disappointed in the system's failures, he still has hope.
"I still have some faith in the system that eventually, these men would have received justice in our courts," Ryan continued. "But I believe the old adage is true: Justice delayed is justice denied."
Three of the four men pardoned Friday were expected to be released within hours. The fourth will stay in prison, serving a sentence for another conviction.
The governor originally ordered a moratorium on executions in the state during 2000 after 13 people on death row were found not guilty.
Ryan also ordered two other men released who had previously been sentenced to life in prison.
Gary Dotson was convicted of rape, but the victim withdrew her identification of Dotson. DNA evidence also supports Dotson's claim of innocence. The second inmate ordered freed is a Cuban citizen who was in jail at the time he was accused of committing a crime elsewhere.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), had predicted the pardons Friday morning.
"The revelations of the past five years, especially, are pretty strong that we're convicting some wrong people and not just convicting, but sentencing them to death," Dieter said. "If we can execute those people, we can execute anybody."
Dieter's group maintains a list entitled "Innocence and the Death Penalty," which claims that since 1973, "102 people in 25 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence."
DPIC defined "evidence of innocence" for CNSNews.com .
"Evidence of innocence means that a unanimous jury, hearing all the evidence that was legally available to them, which is our system, found the person not guilty," Dieter explained. "That's our system. The person is acquitted and found as 'innocent' as our system can find them."
But that definition is troubling to Dudley Sharp, resource director of Justice For All (JFA), a pro-death penalty group.
"Being released does not [automatically] mean they are 'innocent.' They either did it or they didn't," Sharp argued. "There's a huge difference between 'legal innocence' and 'actual innocence.'"
Sharp disputed Dieter's contention that "innocent" and "not guilty" mean the same thing.
"Courts, including the Supreme Court, have been making the obvious distinction between legal innocence and actual innocence for years," Sharp explained.
To support his assertion, Sharp points to the DPIC website's case descriptions of the 102 allegedly "innocent" people.
"In my analysis, only 32 of the cases claim to be 'actually innocent' people, with evidence to support the claim," Sharp said.
But Dieter believes that, because exonerated death row inmates are innocent in the eyes of the law, they should have every right to be assumed innocent in society.
"People are certainly free to make personal judgments about 'how innocent' they think a person really is," he acknowledged. "For someone to conclude that of these 100 people, 30 are 'really innocent,' I think is just their personal judgment."
Dieter said DPIC does exclude some cases of death row inmates being freed from its list.
"There was a case in which someone was convicted and given the death penalty, and the court overturned it on the basis that the man was not given a speedy trial. That was the end of it. That prosecutor had no other chance [to retry the defendant,]" Dieter cited as an example. "That person's not included on our list."
But Sharp said DPIC does include individuals who were found "not guilty" during retrials only because juries were prohibited from seeing proof of their guilt. He alleged that Dieter's group also includes death row inmates who were freed and never retried, even if the reason they weren't retried is because factual evidence of their guilt was ruled inadmissible based on legal technicalities.
"I don't think it's fair to call these things 'legal technicalities,'" Dieter argued. "This is how we protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted."
Sharp questioned who is supposed to protect the innocent from those guilty persons who are freed as a result of excluded evidence or lack of prosecutorial resources.
"In some of these cases, the appellate courts reaffirmed the guilt of the inmate," Sharp explained. "There's no credible claim for innocence."
Democrats in the Senate announced earlier this week that they will reintroduce the "Innocence Protection Act" sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The legislation seeks changes to the federal criminal justice system to help ensure that truly innocent people are not executed for crimes they did not commit.
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