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Ryan: 'I looked at every case'

Illinois Gov. George Ryan
Illinois Gov. George Ryan

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(CNN) -- Illinois Gov. George Ryan finished his term in office Monday, but he left behind him a controversial addition to his legacy. On Friday, Ryan pardoned four prisoners awaiting execution. A day later, he commuted the death sentences of about 167 other prisoners.

The Republican's actions drew high praise from death penalty foes and harsh criticism from prosecutors and relatives of victims in Illinois. Among these relatives was Crystal Fitch, whose sister was raped and murdered by man who was among those inmates Ryan removed from death row this weekend.

Fitch appeared Monday on CNN's "American Morning" and said the governor was wrong for his decision. Ryan himself came on the show later Monday morning to talk to CNN anchor Bill Hemmer.

HEMMER: What do you say to people like Crystal Fitch when she says you flat-out betrayed the family several weeks ago and again over the weekend, thus, again, bringing up the awful memories of the murder of her sister nine years ago?

RYAN: Well, I think the fact that it was nine years ago that her sister was killed speaks to the system. Justice in America is supposed to be swift and even-handed and fair. Here's a fellow that sat on death row for nine years waiting for justice.

Now, let me say that all of the critics, some of them have a legitimate complaint against me. Death is a pretty emotional issue, and the death penalty is an emotional issue. I spoke with the families of the victims and I told them on various occasions that a blanket commutation was possible. I said I wouldn't do it. I said on occasion it was on the front burner, the back burner. But I always said that it was an option that I could use if I thought necessary.

Those people all insisted that I look at each case individually and separately. I did just that. I looked at every case. And let me tell you, Bill, this is a program that's been going on now for three years in Illinois. It isn't just something that comes at the end of my term. There isn't anything political about it and I frankly resent the fact that people might say that it is.

This is an issue where we're ...

HEMMER: Governor, let me just stop you there. You mentioned about three things I really want to pick out here. You say you looked at every case individually.

RYAN: Right.

HEMMER: But ... the man raped and murdered this woman's sister, [he was] convicted, [and] on death row for nine years. What is the excuse for allowing him to have his life spared then?

RYAN: Well, Bill, I don't know if you know all the statistics about Illinois' death penalty system. But we had 40, 37, 39 people on death row. Seventeen of them have been exonerated after having been found guilty by a jury of their peers, been through every appellate process that we have in Illinois, gone to the Supreme Court of Illinois, to the United States Supreme Court, only to have their convictions verified in each case, only to come back and find that they, in fact, were innocent. And it took journalism students from Northwestern University to find that three of them were innocent. People had recanted their testimony. DNA evidence and lots of things that turned that around.

In the meantime, we executed 12 people out of that number and exonerated 17. That's a 60 percent error rate. I don't know who can survive any business in a 60 percent error rate.

HEMMER: Governor ...

RYAN: That's why I did this.

HEMMER: Yes, understood. And I hear your logic over the weekend. Again, what is your position right now on capital punishment? Do you no longer believe in it or do you just believe the system right now is far from perfect and that's why it needs to be out?

RYAN: Well, look, I'm still arguing with myself about the capital punishment system, whether it should be there or not. I came to office as an avid supporter of the death penalty. And having looked at the system and having been through this for the last three years, I think that there are, without question, some flaws that need to be looked at and problems and programs that can be put into place to solve those problems.

I impaneled a very distinguished group of people -- prosecutors, lawyers, businesspeople, defense lawyers -- to study this issue. And they, too, studied every case on death row and came back with the conclusion that there should be some changes made. They made a recommendation of 85 changes to the system here in Illinois.

The General Assembly, on three occasions, has refused to pass those, any of them, any kind of them --- simple things like videotaping confessions, which would seem pretty simple.

The four people that I pardoned on Saturday or Friday were all people that had signed confessions and said they were guilty. But, of course, that was after they had been electroshocked and beaten and suffocated. They finally said, "Sure, I did it." Those are the kinds of things that need to be corrected. And there's a lot of blame to go around with what's wrong with our system in Illinois. It's from over zealous prosecutors ...

HEMMER: Listen, I'm almost out of time here. Understood. We could go into this for hours, and believe me, I think a lot of people watching would like to see it.

There are many challenges right now to this decision you made. Do you believe right now your decision will stand up in your state?

RYAN: I do. The constitution is very clear as to what my powers are. We had a lot of legal scholars and smart people that looked at this and said ... , "Absolutely, you have the authority to do it, and you should do it," and I did.

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