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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Ryan Commutes Death Row Inmates' Sentences

Aired January 11, 2003 - 14:38   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you now to a breaking situation. The Illinois outgoing governor, George Ryan, is speaking now about the commutations of several Illinois death row inmates. Let's listen in.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

GOV. GEORGE RYAN (R), ILLINOIS: They've gone beyond the call. They freed the falsely accused, Ford Heights Four. They saved Anthony Porter's life and they fought for Rolondo Cruz and Alex Fernandez.

And before I go on, I'd like to take just a minute to talk about Larry and Dave. Never have I met anyone with more passion but with a fiercer sense of justice than these two men. They have a vision for what the justice system can be and they're an inspiration. And I want to say thanks, again, especially thanks to them for their hard work and dedication and their long hours and their deep seeded belief in what we're doing here today.

I think it's more than proper also that we're together with dedicated people like Andrea Long, who I had the opportunity to be with yesterday, who's labored long in the frontlines of trying capital cases for many years and who is now devoting her passion to creating an innocence center at DePaul University.

Andrea Lyons (ph) -- there she is. Andrea Lyons (ph) saved Madison Hobley's life. Together, she spared the life and secured the freedom of 17 men who were wrongfully convicted and rotting in the condemned units of our state's prison. Andrea, what you have achieved is of the highest calling. Thank you, thank you very much for all you've done.

Yes, I believe it's right that if I'm here with you, where in a manner of speaking that my journey from response supporter of a capital punishment system to a reformer all began. Since the beginning of our journey, my thoughts and feelings about the death penalty have changed many, many times. And I realize that over the course of my reviews, I had said that I would not do blanket commutations. I've also said that it was on the front burner. It was on the back burner. But I've always said that it was an option. And it was there. And it was an option that I wanted to keep on the table and have to consider.

And during my time in public office, I have always reserved my right to be in the best interest of public policy, to change my mind when I thought it was necessary to do so. And I have done it on a lot of occasions and certainly this is one of those occasions. But I must confess that the debate with myself, I think, has really been the toughest concerning the death penalty. And I suppose the reason that the death penalty has been the toughest is because it's so final. It is. It's absolutely final. And it's the only public policy that determines who lives and dies. And you can talk about whatever you want to talk about, but that's the public policy. It's life and death. It is the only issue that attracts most of the legal minds all across the country. And I can tell you that I have received more advice on this issue than any other policy issue that I've dealt with in my 35 years of public service.

I have kept an open mind on both sides of the issue of commutation for life or for death. And I have read, listened to and discussed issues with the families of the victims as well as the families of the condemned. And I know that any decision that I'll make today will not be accepted by one side or the other. I know that my decision will be just that, my decision based on all of the facts that I could gather over the past three years. I may never be comfortable with the decision that I make in the final decision, but I'll know in my heart that I did my very best to do the right thing.

Now, having said that I want to share with you a program or a story that I want to tell you about. As you all know, you have heard me say I grew up in Kankakee, Illinois. And Kankakee is not far from Chicago, but it's still a thousand miles away in terms of a lot of things. It is still a small midwestern town, a place where people tend to know each other. And I had a great neighbor and his name was Steve Small.

He and his wife would look after our young children when Laura Lynne (ph) and I were out of town. I got to tell you that wasn't for the faint of heart because we had six kids and five of them were under the age of three. But he was a bright young man who helped run the family business. And he and his wife had three children of their own. And Laura Lynne (ph) was especially close because we knew that we were there for each other.

And one September midnight, Steve received a call at his home. And he had brought an old Frank Lloyd Wright house in Kankakee and he was in the process of restoring it to its original form. And they said that there had been as a break in at that house. And so, he had to leave his house to go sign a complaint with the police. And when he got to the garage and opened the door, there was a man standing there with a gun and they put the gun on him and threw him in the trunk of the car. And they took him out and buried him in a very shallow grave alive and he died before police could find him.

His killer eventually led police to where Steve's body was buried. The young man's name was Danny Edward. He was also from my hometown of Kankakee. And he now sits on death row. I know his family. I know his brother. I know his mother and father.

And I share this story with you so that you know that I don't come to this as a neophyte without having expected and experienced the small bit of the bitter pill the survivors of murder must swallow. But my responsibilities and obligations are more than my neighbors and my family. I represent all of the people of Illinois and the decision that I make about our criminal justice system is felt not only here but as I found out, the world over.

As I said the other day, I received a call from Nelson Mandela. I was at Manny's having a corn beef sandwich as a matter of fact. And I had a chat with Nelson Mandela for about 20 minutes. But the message that he basically delivered was that the United States sets the example for justice and fairness for the rest of the world. And today, the United States is not in league with most of our allies when it comes to the death penalty. We're not in league with Europe or South Africa or Canada or Mexico, most South and Central American countries. These countries have rejected the death penalty. We're partners in death with several third world countries. As you all know, even Russia has now called a moratorium.

The death penalty has been abolished in 12 states and in none of those states has the homicide rate increased. Now, here's a good number for you to remember, in Illinois last year we had about 1,000 murders and only two percent were sentenced to death. I want to know, where is the fairness and the equality in that? The death penalty in Illinois is not imposed fairly or uniformly because of the absence of standards for 102 counties in this state, state attorneys who must decide whether to request a death sentence.

Should geography be a factor in determining who gets the death sentence? I don't think it should. But in Illinois it makes a difference. You are five times more likely to get a death sentence for the first-degree murder in the rural areas of the state than you are here in Cook County. Five times more. Where's the fairness in that? Where is the fairness in the justice system? Does that propose (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

You know the most -- Reverend Desmond Tutu wrote to me this week stating that -- he said and I quote --- "To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge. It's not justice." He says justice allows for mercy and clemency and compassion. And these virtues are not weaknesses. In fact, the most blurring weakness is that no matter how efficient and how fair the death penalty may seem in theory, in actual practice, it's primarily inflicted upon the weak, the poor, the ignorant and against racial minorities.

Now that was a quote from former California Governor Pat Brown. He wrote a book and his daughter sent it to me a couple months ago and the book was titled "Public Justice and Private Mercy." And he wrote that -- nearly 50 years ago he wrote that. Fifty years ago. Now what's changed in 50 years? Not much. Why not? I don't know. I don't have the answer. I never intended to be an activist on this issue, needless to say. But soon after taking office, I watched in surprise and amazement as the free death row inmate Anthony Porter was released from jail. As a free man, he ran into Northwestern University professor, David Protest. Where's David? Where are you, David? David's right here.

David, it was a memory I'll never forget, seeing little Anthony Porter run out and jump in your arms as a free man out of prison. He poured his heart and soul; David did, in providing Porter's innocence with his journalism students.

Anthony Porter was 48 hours away from being wheeled into the execution chamber where the state would kill him. It would be also antiseptic that most of us wouldn't have even paused for a second except that Anthony Porter was innocent. He was innocent for the double murder for which he had been condemned by the State of Illinois to die.

And after Mr. Porter's cause, there was a report by "Chicago Tribune" reporter, Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong, that documented the systemic failures of our capital punishment system and you've all read it. I can't imagine it. Half, if you will, of the nearly 300 capital cases in Illinois have been reversed for a new trial or for some resentence.

Now, how many of you people here today that are professionals can get by and call your life a success if you're only 50 percent successful? Certainly, I can't as a pharmacist. I don't think doctors can. I don't know how the Justice Department can think they've a system that work when 50 percent of the cases are sent back for fixing. Thirty-three percent of the death row inmates were represented at trial by an attorney who had later been disbarred or at some point, suspended from the practice of law. And of the more than 160 death row inmates, 35 were African-American defendants, who had been convicted or condemned to die not by a jury of their peers, but by all white juries. More than two-thirds of the inmates on death row were African-Americans and 46 inmates were convicted on the basis of testimony from jailhouse informants.

I can recall looking at these cases and the information from the Mills/Armstrong series and I ask myself and my staff, how does that happen? How in God's name does that happen? In America, how does it happen? I've been asking this question for nearly three years and so far nobody's answered the question. Even as I stand here today nobody's answered the question.

So then over the next few months there were three more exonerated men freed because their sentence sentences hinged on a jailhouse informant or some new DNA technology that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were innocent. Thirteen men found innocent and 12 executed. And as I reported yesterday, there's not a doubt in my mind that the number of innocent men freed from our death row stands at 17 now because yesterday we pardoned Aaron Patterson, and Madison Hobley and Stanley Howard and Leroy Orange.

(APPLAUSE)

RYAN: And if you really want to know what's outrageous and unconscionable, outrageous and unconscionable, it's 17 exonerated death row inmates is nothing short of a catastrophic failure. But to then 13 and now 17 men, it is just the beginning of our sad arithmetic in prosecuting murder cases in this state. During the time that we've had capital punishment in Illinois, there were at least 33 other people wrongfully convicted on murder charges and exonerated, 33. You don't read about those people because they didn't make death row. Since we reinstated the death penalty, there are also 93 people, 93, for our criminal justice to impose the most severe sanction and then rescinded the sentence or even release the prisoners from custody because they were innocent -- 93. How many more cases of wrongful conviction have to occur before we can all agree that this system in Illinois is broken?

Throughout this process, I have heard many different points of view expressed and I've had the opportunity to review all of the cases involving the inmates on death row. I have conducted private group hearings, one in Springfield and one in Chicago, with the surviving of the members of the homicide victims. Everyone in that room, who wanted to speak, had the opportunity to do so. Some wanted to express their grief while others wanted to express their anger, but I took it all in.

My connection, myself, my staff had been reviewing each and every case for three years. But I redoubled my effort to review each case personally in order to represent and to respond to the concerns of prosecutors and victims families. This individual review also naturally resulted in a collective examination of our entire death penalty system.

I also had a meeting with a group of people who are less often heard from and who are not as popular with the media. The family members of death row inmates have a special challenge to face and I spent an afternoon with those family members at a church here in Chicago on the south side. And at that meeting, I heard a different kind of pain expressed. Many of these families live with the twin pain of knowing not only that in some cases their family members were responsible for inflicting a terrible trauma on another family but also the pain of knowing that society has called for another killing.

These parents, siblings and children are not to blame for the crime that has been committed. If these innocent have to stand with their loved ones and they have to stand with their loved ones wondering whether they're going to be killed by the state. And as Mr. Mandela told me, they're also branded and scarred for the rest of their life because of the awful crime that's been committed by their family member.

Others were even more tormented by the fact that their loved one was another victim, but that their loved one was truly innocent of the crime for which they had been sentenced to die. And it was at that meeting that I looked into the face of Claude Glee (ph), another Kankakee citizen, Claude Lee (ph), who's the father of Eric Lee (ph), who was convicted of killing a Kankakee police officer. His name was Anthony Samfay (ph).

And a few years ago, it happened. It was a traumatic moment, once again, for my hometown of Kankakee. A brave officer, part of that thin blue line that protects all of us from being struck down by want and violence. And if you will, kill a police officer, you have absolutely no respect for the law nor do you have any respect for man nor his laws nor any respect for God. I have known the Lee family for many years in Kankakee. There's does not appear to be a whole lot of question about the guilt of Eric Lee (ph). He killed that officer. However, I can say now that after our review there is also not much question that Eric (ph) is and has been for some time very seriously ill. With the history of treatment for mental illness going back a number of years, the crime he committed was a terrible crime, killing a police officer. And society demands that the highest penalty be paid. But I had to ask myself, could I send another man's son to death under the deeply flawed system of capital punishment that we have in Illinois, a troubled young man with the history of mental illness? Could I rely on the system of justice that we have in this state not to make another horrible mistake? Could I rely on a fair sentencing program? Could I rely on a fair sentencing program in the United States?

In the United States, the overwhelming majority of those executed are psychotic, alcoholic, drug addicted or mentally unstable. And they're frequently raised in an (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and abusive environment. And seldom are people with money or prestige convicted of capital offenses, but even more seldom are they executed.

To quote Pat Brown again, he said -- and I quote -- "Society has both the right and the moral duty to protect itself against its enemies." This natural and prehistoric axiom has never successfully been refuted. If by ordered death, society is really protected and our homes and institutions guarded, then even the most extreme of all penalties can be justified. Beyond its honor and incredibility, it has neither protected the innocent nor destroyed the killers. Public sanction killing has cheapened human life and dignity without the redeeming grace that comes from justice delivered evenly, swiftly and humanly, and at stake...

(APPLAUSE)

At stake throughout the clemency process was whether some, all or none of these inmates on death row could have their sentences commuted from death to life, without the possibility of parole. And one of the things that was discussed with family members was life without parole was seen as a life filled with perks and benefits. Some inmates on death row don't want a sentence of life without parole. Danny Edwards, from Kankakee, wrote me a letter. Said: "If you can't pardon me, don't condemn me to a life in prison. Leave me on death row. Don't do me any favors," he said, because he didn't want to face the prospect of a life in prison without parole.

They'll be confined in a cell about six feet by 12 feet. Usually double-bunked. Our prisons have no air conditioning, except at one of our supermax facilities were inmates are kept in their cell 24 hours a day, and in summer months, the temperature gets as high as 100 degrees. It's a stark and dreary existence, and they can think about their crimes for the rest of their life. Life without parole has even, at times, been described by prosecutors as a fate worse than death.

Yesterday I mentioned a lawsuit in Livingston County, where a judge ruled the State Corrections Department couldn't force-feed two corrections inmates who were on a hunger strike. The judge ruled that suicide by hunger strike was not an irrational action by the inmates, given what their future holds -- life in a six by 12 cell. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it's unconstitutional, and cruel and unusual punishment to execute the mentally retarded. It's now the law of this land. How many people have we already executed who were mentally retarded and are now dead and buried? Although we now know that they have been killed by the state unconstitutionally and illegally. Is that fair? Is that right?

This court decision was last spring. The General Assembly of the state of Illinois has failed to pass any measure defining what constitutes mental retardation. We are a rudderless ship, because they failed to act. And this was even after the Illinois Supreme Court also told lawmakers that it was their job, and it must be done.

I started with this issue because I was and still am concerned about innocence, but once I studied, I pondered what had become of our justice system, I came to care above all about fairness. Fairness is fundamental to the American system of justice and to our way of life.

(APPLAUSE)

The facts that I've seen in reviewing each and every one of these cases questions not only about the innocence of people on death row, but about the fairness of the death penalty system as a whole.

(APPLAUSE)

In a system that's working, if it was working, so many errors in determining whether someone was guilty in the first place, how fairly and accurately was it determining which guilty defendants deserved to live and which deserved to die? And what effect was race having? What effect was poverty having? And almost every one of the exonerated 17, we'd not only had breakdowns with police and prosecutors and judges, we have terrible cases of shabby defense lawyers. There is no way to sugarcoat what goes on. There are defense attorneys that did not consult with their clients. They didn't investigate the cases that they had, and they were completely unqualified to handle complex death penalty cases.

They often don't put much effort into fighting a death sentence, and if your life is on the line, your lawyer certainly ought to be working a little extra hard to make sure that your life is saved. And as I've said before, there's more than enough blame to go around about our failures with this system.

I had more questions in Illinois. I have learned that we have 102 decision-makers. Each of them are politically elected. Each beholding to the demands of their community, and in some cases, to the media or especially vocal victims' families. And I ask you, in cases that have the attention of the media and the public, are decisions to seek the death penalty more likely to occur? What standards are these prosecutors using?

Some people have assailed my power to commute sentences. A power that literally hundreds of legal scholars from across the country have defended. The prosecutors in Illinois have the ultimate commutation power, a power that is exercised every day. They decide who's going to be the subject to the death penalty, who will get a plea deal, or even who may get a complete pass on prosecution. Every day in this state that happens. They make these -- these decisions, and I ask about what standards do they make these decisions on? We don't know. They're not public.

They were more than 1,000 murders last year in Illinois, and there is no doubt that all murders are cruel and they're wrong, yet less than 2 percent of those murder defendants are going to receive the death penalty. That means that more than 98 percent of victims' families don't get and will not receive whatever satisfaction can be derived from the execution of the murderer. Moreover, if you look at the cases as I have done, both individually and collectively, a killing within the same circumstances might get you 40 years in one county and the death sentence in another county. I have also seen co- defendants who are equally guilty, where one gets sentenced to a term of years, while another ends up on death row.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart has said that the imposition of the death penalty on defendants in this country is as freakish and arbitrary as who gets hit by a bolt of lightning. In my case-by-case review, I found three cases that struck me as particularly unfair, troublesome and deserving of some form of commutation.

In one of them, the murder victims's family had publicly and privately urged me to act more aggressively than I will today. In the cases of Montel Johnson (ph) and Mario Flores and William Frankford (ph). I am today commuting their sentence to a term of 40 years to fairly bring their sentences...

(APPLAUSE)

... I will bring their sentences into line with their co- defendants and to reflect the other extraordinary circumstances of each of these cases.

It's an example of what can happen. For years, the criminal justice system defended and upheld the imposition of the death penalty for the 17 exonerated inmates from Illinois. Yet when the real killers are charged, prosecutors have often sought sentences of less than death. In the Ford Heights Four case, Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams fought the death sentences imposed upon them for 18 years before they were exonerated, and later Cook County prosecutors sought life in prison for the real killers and sentenced them to 80 years. What a difference murder for which the Ford Heights Four were sentenced to die. Why is that less worthy of the death penalty 20 years later with a new set of defendants?

I don't understand the arbitrariness of the system. We've come very close to having our state Supreme Court rule the death penalty statute unconstitutional. It was a statute that I helped pass in 1977. Former State Supreme Court Justice Seymour Simon wrote to me just recently...

(APPLAUSE) Justice Simon wrote to me that it was only happenstance that our statute was not struck down by the state's high court. When he joined the bench in 1980, three other justices had already said Illinois's death penalty was unconstitutional, but they got cold feet when a case came along to revisit the question. One judge wrote that he wanted to wait and see if the Supreme Court of the United States would rule on the constitutionality of the new Illinois law. Another said that precedent required him to follow the old state Supreme Court ruling with which he had disagreed. And even a pharmacist knows that that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

We wouldn't have a death penalty today and we wouldn't all be struggling with the issue if these votes had been different. Pretty arbitrary. Several years ago, we enacted our death penalty statute, a fellow by the name of Greevey Davis (ph) was executed. Justice Simon wrote to me that he was executed because this unconstitutional aspect of Illinois law, the wide latitude that each Illinois state's attorney has to determine what cases qualify for the death penalty. One state's attorney decided not to seek the death sentence when Davis' (ph) first sentencing was sent back to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing. Instead, he was going to ask for a life sentence, the state's attorney.

But in the interim, a new state's attorney was elected or appointed, somehow became the new state's attorney. And he wanted the death penalty. And he was successful in charging the death penalty, and he was successful in getting the death penalty against Greevey Davis (ph), and Greevey Davis (ph) was executed. I ask you, how fair is that?

After the flaws of our death penalty system were exposed, the Supreme Court of Illinois began to reform its rules and to improve the procedures for trying capital cases. It changed the rule to require that states attorneys give advance notice to defendants that they plan to seek the death penalty, before trial, instead of after conviction. The Supreme Court also enacted new discovery rules designed to prevent trials by ambush and to allow for better investigation of cases from the very beginning.

Shouldn't that mean that you were tried or sentenced before these important essential reforms were enacted to correct a clearly flawed system that you ought to get a new trial or sentencing that will be more fair or just as accurate? This issue has divided the Supreme Court. Some saying yes, but a majority saying no. These justices have a lifetime of experience with the criminal justice system. And it concerns me that these great minds so strenuously differ on an issue of such importance, especially where life or death hangs in the balance.

What are we to make of the studies that showed that more than 50 percent of Illinois jurors couldn't understand the confusing and obscure sentencing instructions that were being used? What effect did that problem have on the trustworthiness of death sentences? A review of the cases shows that often even the lawyers and the judges are confused about the instruction, let alone the jurors sitting in judgment. Cases still come before the Supreme Court with arguments about whether the jury instructions were proper.

And as I have said, I've spent a good deal of time reviewing these death row cases. My staff, many of whom are lawyers, spent busy days and many sleepless nights answering questions, providing me with information and giving me a lot of great advice.

And it became very clear to me that whatever decision I made I would be criticized for. And it also became very clear to me that it was impossible to make reliable choices about whether our capital punishment system had really done its job.

And as I came closer to my decision, I knew that I was going to have to face the question of whether I believed so completely in the choice I wanted to make that I could face the prospect of even commuting the death sentence of Danny Edwards (UNINTELLIGIBLE), a man who had killed a close family friend of mine. My wife was even angry and disappointed at my decision, like many of the other families are going to be.

I was struck by the anger of the families of murder victims. To a family, they talked about closure. They pleaded with me to allow the state to kill an inmate in its name to provide the families with closure. But is that the purpose of capital punishment? Is it to soothe the families? And is that truly the families' experience?

I can't imagine losing a family member to murder, nor can I imagine spending every waking day for 20 years with a single-minded focus to execute the killer. The system of death -- we just went out. TelePrompTer. The government TelePrompTer.

The system of death in Illinois is so unsure that it's not unusual for cases to take 20 years before they are resolved. Thank God. Because if it moved any faster, then Anthony Porter, the Ford Heights Four, Ronald Jones, Madison Hobley and all the other innocent men that we've exonerated might already be dead and buried.

But it is cruel and unusual punishment for family members to go through this pain, this legal limbo for 20 years. Perhaps it would be less cruel if we sentenced the killers to life in a six by 12 cell and used our resources to better serve victims.

(APPLAUSE)

My heart ached when I heard one grandmother who lost children in an arson fire. She said that she couldn't afford proper grave markers for her grandchildren who died. I question, why can't the state help families provide a proper burial? Another crime victim came to our family meeting. He believed an inmate sent to death row for another crime also shot and paralyzed him. The inmate, he says, gets free medicine, free health care, while the victim that he shot struggles to pay his substantial medical bills, and as a result, he has forgone getting proper medical care to alleviate the physical pain that he endures.

What kinds of victim services are we providing? Are all of our resources geared toward providing this notion of closure by an eye for an eye? Closure by execution instead of tending to the physical and social needs of family victims? And what kind of values are we instilling in those wounded families and in the young people?

You know what Gandhi said about an eye for an eye. He said, that leaves the whole world blind. President Lincoln often talked of binding up wounds as he sought to preserve the union. He said, we're not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.

I have had to consider not only the horrible nature of the crimes that put men on death row in the first place, the terrible suffering family members of the victims, the despair of the family members of the inmates, but I have had also to watch as frustration members of the Illinois General Assembly failed to pass even one substantive death penalty reform in the state! Not one! People like Tom Sullivan and great minds, legal minds and business people in this state put together a great package and our General Assembly thumbed their nose at us, and not even passed one of those! And we gave them three occasions to do it. They couldn't even agree on one -- one way to make the system better.

And I don't know how much more evidence is needed before that General Assembly will take its responsibility in this area seriously. It's a charge that they've got to look after pretty quick.

(APPLAUSE)

The fact is that the failure of the General Assembly to act is merely a symptom of the larger problem. Many people express the desire to have capital punishment. Few, however, seem to prepare to address the tough questions that arise when the system fails. It's easier and more comfortable for politicians to be tough on crime and to support the death penalty. It brings votes. But when it comes to admitting that we have a problem, most run for cover.

Prosecutors across our state continue to deny that our death penalty system is broken, or they say if there is a problem, it's merely a small problem, and we can fix it somehow some day. It's difficult to see how the system can be fixed when not one single one of the new reforms proposed by our commission has been adopted. And even the reforms, the prosecutors agree, if they've all agreed with, haven't been adopted.

So when will the system be fixed? When is it going to be made better? We know that it's worse than 50 percent. How much more risk can we afford? And will we actually have to execute an innocent person before the tragedy that is our capital punishment system in Illinois really understood?

This summer, the United States district court judge held the federal death penalty was unconstitutional, and noted that with the number of recent exonerations based on DNA and new scientific technology that we, without a doubt, executed innocent people before this technology emerged.

And as I prepare to leave the office of governor, I had to ask myself whether I could really live with the prospect of knowing that I had the opportunity to act but that I failed to do so because I might be criticized. Could I take the chance that our capital punishment system might be reformed, that wrongful convictions might not occur, that enterprising journalism students might free more men from death row? The system that's so fragile that it depends on young journalism students is seriously flawed.

There is no honorable way to kill, and there is no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war, except in its envy.

(APPLAUSE)

And that's what Abraham Lincoln said. That's what Abraham Lincoln said about the bloody war between the states. It was a war fought to end the sorriest chapter in American history, the institution of slavery. And while we're not in Civil War now, we're facing what is shaping up to be one of the great civil rights struggles of our time.

(APPLAUSE)

Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights has taken the position that the death penalty is sought with increasing frequency against the poor and minorities. Our own studies showed that juries were more likely to sentence to death if the victim were white than if the victim were black, three and a half times more likely to be exact, three and a half times more likely.

We're not alone. Just this month, the state of Maryland released a study that their death penalty system and racial disparity absolutely exists in their system. And this week, Mamie Till-Mobley died. She's being buried this morning, I believe. Her son, Emmett, was lynched in Mississippi in the 1950s. She was a strong advocate for civil rights and reconciliation, and in fact just three weeks ago, she was a keynote speaker at the Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation right here in Chicago. This group opposes the death penalty even though their family members have been lost to some senseless killings. Mamie's strength and her grace not only ignited the civil rights movement, including inspiring Rosa Parks to refuse to go to the back of the bus, but inspired murder victims until her dying day.

Is our system fair to all? Is justice blind? These are important human rights issues, ones that need answers.

Another issue that came up at my individual case-by-case review was the issue of international law. The Vienna (ph) convention protects U.S. citizens abroad and foreign nationals in the United States. It provides that if you are arrested, you should be afforded the opportunity to contact your consulate. There are five men on death row who were denied that internationally recognized human right. Today with us we have the consule general from Mexico -- where is he?

(APPLAUSE)

Carlos Sada. Carlos, thank you. Carlos is just back from Mexico, where he was with President Fox, and they called me while he was there to express their deep concern for the Vienna (ph) convention violations. And based on the commission's findings and recommendations, this year I prepared and distributed to police agencies and prosecutors training materials to ensure compliance with the Vienna (ph) convention. If we don't uphold international law here, 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.

(APPLAUSE)

My commission recommended the Supreme Court conduct a proportionality review of our system in Illinois. And while our appellate courts perform a case-by-case review of the appellate record, they've not done such a big picture study. Instead, they tinker with a case-by-case review as each appeal lands on their docket.

In 1994, near the end of his very distinguished career as a Supreme Court justice of the United States, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote an influential dissent in the body of law in capital punishment. Twenty years earlier, he was part of the court that issued the landmark Furman decision. The court decided that the death penalty statutes in use throughout the country were fraught with severe flaws that rendered them unconstitutional, and quite frankly, they were the same problems that we see right here in Illinois.

To many, it looked like the Furman decision meant the end of the death penalty in the United States. This was not the case. Many states responded to Furman by developing and enhancing new and improved death penalty statutes. And in 1976, four years after it had decided Furman, Justice Blackmun joined the majority of the United States Supreme Court in deciding to give the states a chance with these new and improved death penalty statutes.

And there was great optimism in the air. This was the climate in 1977, when the Illinois legislature was faced with the momentous decision of whether to reinstate the death penalty in Illinois. I was a member of that General Assembly. And at that time, I voted green. I pushed my button green, in favor of reinstating the death penalty.

I did so with the belief that whatever problems that plagued the capital punishment system in the past were now being cured. I'm sure that most of my colleagues who voted with me on that day shared the same view. But 20 years later, after affirming hundreds of death penalty decisions, Justice Blackmun came to the realization in the twilight of his very distinguished career that the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice and mistake. He expressed frustration with the 20-year struggle to develop procedural and substantive safeguards. In a now very famous descent, he wrote in 1994, "From this day forward, I longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."

(APPLAUSE)

One of the few disappointments of my legislative and executive career is that the General Assembly failed to work with me to reform our system, after we had such a complete and thorough study done by able and competent people. I don't know how or why legislators could not find the need of the rising voices for reform. I don't know how many more systemic flaws we need to uncover before they need to be spurred to action. Three times I proposed reforming the system with a package that would restrict the use of jailhouse snitches, create a statewide panel to determine death eligible cases, reduce the number of crimes eligible for death.

These reforms would not have created a perfect system, but they would have dramatically reduced the chance for error in the administration of the ultimate penalty. The governor has the constitutional role in our state of acting in the interest of justice and fairness. Our state Constitution provides broad power to the governor to issue reprieves, pardons and commutations. Our Supreme Court has reminded inmates petitioning that while errors and fairness questions may actually exist and cannot be recognized under judicial rules and procedural mandates. The last court, the last resort for relief is the governor.

Pretty awesome power. At times, the executive clemency power has perhaps been a crutch for courts to avoid making the kind of major change that I believe this system needs. Our systemic case-by-case review has found more cases of innocent men wrongfully sentenced to death row, and because our three-year study has found only more questions about the fairness of the sentencing, and because of the spectacular failure to reform the system, because we have seen justice delayed for countless death row inmates with potentially meritorious claims, and because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious, and therefore, immoral, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.

(APPLAUSE)

Thank you. Thank you. I didn't say that as eloquently as Justice Blackmun did, but I've got to tell you, the legislature couldn't reform it, lawmakers won't repeal it, and I won't stand for it.

(APPLAUSE)

I've been asked why I waited for the last 48 hours before I made this decision. There are a lot of reasons, but one was that I wanted to go as far as I could and learn and know as much as I could. But I also thought that I couldn't leave without getting something done. I had to act. Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error, error in determining guilt, error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.

Because of all of these reasons today, I'm commuting the sentence of all death row inmates, 157 of them.

(APPLAUSE)

Thank you. As I said earlier, this was blanket commutation. And I said earlier that I promised the people of Illinois at some point that I wouldn't use it, at some point it was on the front burner, at some point it was on the back burner, but I always said it was an option that I may use and exercise, never really believing as long ago as a week or 10 days that I would blanket commute these sentences. I didn't believe I would do it myself.

But I realize that my decision will draw ridicule and scorn and anger from many who oppose this decision. And they'll say that I'm usurping the decision of judges and juries and state legislators. But as I have said, the people of our state have invested in me the power to act in the interests of justice. It's the only place in the Constitution done that way. And even if the exercise of my power becomes my burden, I'll bear it.

(APPLAUSE)

Because our Constitution compels it. I sought this office, and even in my final days of holding it, I can't shrink from the obligations to justice and fairness that it demands. There have been many things and many nights where my staff and I have been deprived of sleep in order to conduct the exhaustive review of this system. But I can tell you this -- I'm going to sleep well tonight, knowing that I made the right decision.

(APPLAUSE)

Thank you. I'm going quit here in a minute.

As I said when I declared the moratorium, it's time for a rational discussion on the death penalty. Here in Illinois and all across America, we must do that. And while our experience in Illinois has indeed sparked a debate, we have fallen short of a rational discussion. Yet if I didn't take this action, I feared that there would be no comprehensive and thorough inquiry into the guilt of the individuals on death row or of the fairness of the sentences applied.

To say it plainly one more time -- the Illinois capital punishment system is broken. It has taken innocent men to a haired breath escape from their unjust execution. Legislatures past have refused to fix it. Our new legislature and our new governor must act to rid our state of the shame of threatening the innocent with execution and the guilty with unfairness.

I had an opportunity to -- not an opportunity, I had an obligation to oversee the election of the new president of the Senate last week. Monday. Yes. Last Monday. Last Wednesday. Former senator just corrected me. Last Wednesday. And I had an opportunity to spend a few minutes talking with my good friend Emil Jones. Emil and have been friends for 25, 30 years. He said that one of his top priorities is going to be to do the reform package that will be put together by our commission. He even talked about abolition. Now, I'm not sure what he's going to do about that. That would be very tough.

(APPLAUSE)

So I guess that in the days ahead, I'm going pray that we can open our hearts and provide something for victims' families, other than the hope of revenge.

(APPLAUSE)

You know, Abraham Lincoln was a hell of a guy. He took this state through some of the toughest -- and this country through the toughest times and the toughest part of our history we've ever known. And so I like to quote him a lot. He was always criticized, the press was always on him. That sounds familiar. His party was after him all the time. His cabinet was after him. He couldn't do anything right. But he always came up with the right solutions to tough problems, and he said once, "I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice." I can only hope with God's help that will be so. God bless all of you. Work hard for the program. Thank you.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

COLLINS: You have been listening to Governor George Ryan who has just announced he is commuting all of the sentences of 157 death row inmates in the state of Illinois.

As you probably well know, yesterday Ryan pardoned four people.

Very emotional crowd at Northwestern school of law. Family members of the pardoned. Students and professors, and those who have been previously pardoned in the same state.

We want to go ahead and bring in CNN legal analyst Kendall Coffey now who's in Miami. He's joining us by phone to tell us more about his perspective on all of this.

Kendall, thanks -- oh, you are not on the phone, you are right there. Thank you, sir, for being here today. Break this down for us. What have we just heard?

KENDALL COFFEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, we've heard something that's historical, something that is stunning, something that is unprecedented. As surely as there was applause and acclaim within that room, there is outrage, cries of betrayal among the prosecutors, the police community, and most especially among the families of the victims.

But one thing is sure. With the stroke of a pen, he has taken 157 doomed men and spared their lives. This is something that has never been before seen in our lifetimes.

COLLINS: And let's talk about that for a minute, Kendall, the executive clemency power that a governor has. What about the power of just one man, of just one mind, to be able to make that stroke of the pen and make a decision of this magnitude?

We have seen commutations before. But of this magnitude, as you say, the very first time.

COFFEY: None of this magnitude by a governor, and certainly not involving violent criminals. These are not people who were caught up in some sort of a scheme when they were kids. These are people who were convicted as murderers. And this is part of an extraordinary power that really goes back to medieval kings, who were seen as having the divine authority to pronounce life and death and spare people. It is rarely exercised in modern times on anything like a significant scale, and something like this is, as we've talked about, has never been seen before.

COLLINS: And we do know there is going to be some criticism. There already has been criticism. And a big job ahead, possibly, at least to deal with what has been left behind from this decision for incoming Democratic governor, Rod Blagojevich. What is he going to do at this point?

COFFEY: Well, there's a challenge that has been made by the outgoing governor to do something to reform the system. And once we get past some dates, where the outcry is going to be over, why a blanket commutation? Isn't the power of the pardon, a pardon to dispense mercy in an individualized case? We're going to get to the question, is Illinois going to do anything about it? And what about the other 49 states, many of whom have similar problems and issues.

COLLINS: He also said that the U.S. sets a standard for justice. That's what he thinks. And that we are not even in the league with other countries. What are your thoughts on that?

COFFEY: Well, the debate has always included not only the question of whether death penalty is a deterrence, but what about the fact that other Western democracies don't use the death penalty? What the issue is really becoming is, aren't there simply mistakes being made? What about the people who apparently are being wrongly convicted? And I think the focus in the comes weeks and months and years is going to simply be the reliability of the system. Do we really have enough reliability? And what is the risk level that is acceptable to the American people about the possibility that an innocent person will be put to death? Obviously, governor has said, no level of risk is acceptable to him.

COLLINS: So are we going to see this happen in other states?

COFFEY: I don't think so. Not in this way. Because I think the reaction's going to be very negative from constituencies and communities that are very important to elected officials. Again, the police, the prosecutors, the families of victims, all of whom are very important in this debate, are absolutely outraged. But what it will do, I think, is get more public attention on it, and some of the more serious issues shouldn't be forgotten. They go beyond one man's pronouncement today. What about the frequent problems of incompetency of counsel that represent these people? And what about the dynamic realities of DNA testing?

COLLINS: Kendall, tell me, we heard the governor also mention that he talked to victims' families and families of the inmates in making this decision. Clearly, it is a moral decision on his part. That's what he said in the speech. How well trained do you have to be legally to make this sort of decision?

COFFEY: Well, some people have questioned the fact that he's a pharmacist. But ultimately, the nature of clemency is not effectively a judge's decision. After all, the judicial system has already spoken. What happens, and it's sort of a unique thing in our system, as that when the people give somebody the right to be the head of their state, that person is entrusted with this extraordinary prerogative. And under the law, the law of Illinois, and in most states, he can exercise it for whatever reason he chooses.

And there's essentially no court of appeal to review the decision of a governor to provide clemency or a pardon, or a commutation of sentence.

COLLINS: All right, Kendall Coffey, we certainly do appreciate your perspective on this. Thanks for joining us today.

We are going to move on now to Jeff Flock, CNN reporter. He has been covering this story from the get-go. He is at Northwestern right now to tell us what he saw from his perspective. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF FLOCK, CNN CHICAGO BUREAU CHIEF: Heidi, what an electric environment here. As you can hear, a lot of adulation for this governor who's taken a bold step here. The heroes of the hour are people like -- as I get down in the middle here, we've got Leroy Orange and his son here. You know, coming and listening to all of this. It's, you know, in some sense, an incredible time.

I just want to get in his ear real quick just to hear what his reaction was to hearing what the governor had to say. I've got to interrupt you very quickly, Roy. What was your reaction to hearing the governor's speech? What was this like for you?

LEROY ORANGE, FREED FROM DEATH ROW: A savior to most of the guys that are on death row. I don't know how everybody feels about a blanket commutation, but I imagine some are grateful. Very grateful.

FLOCK: What an environment in here.

ORANGE: Ecstatic. The environment is ecstatic.

FLOCK: I'll let you go. Thanks, Leroy.

A lot of people here involved in this fight for clemency for death row inmates. A lot of people who oppose the death penalty. Another man here who has been fighting, here's Paul Ciolino, who is a private investigator, who was responsible for freedom for your guys yesterday. You worked on the ...

(CROSSTALK)

PAUL CIOLINO, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: Mario Flores, who was commuted to 40 years today.

FLOCK: What was it like being here and hearing news on the part of (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

CIOLINO: Well, I think I'm here for history. This is one of the greatest political speeches ever given. He has done so many good things. He's saved lives like we can't believe. We know there's more guilty people sitting in prison in Illinois. This gives us an opportunity to continue fighting for them.

FLOCK: But this room was packed with people who think like you do, which is there probably shouldn't be a death penalty. There isn't a fair system.

What do you say to victims' families out there who listened to the speech and just seethed at it?

CIOLINO: The victims families, in a lot of cases, in 17 specifically, were sold a bill of goods. I'm positive that none of the victims families wanted to see an innocent person murdered in their name. We don't know how many more innocent people are on death row. I know certainly there are a few of them. I don't want them to be dead, I don't want them -- I want them to have an opportunity to prove their innocence at some venue. The victims families have closure.

FLOCK: Also, I want to get your perspective, is there anything you think that can be done to reverse this on the part of anybody? A court? Prosecutors go back in? This is a blanket commutation. It's unprecedented. Is there any legal grounds that you can see, I know you're not an attorney but you work with them, to potentially overturn this?

CIOLINO: The governor's decision on clemency matters is unequivocal and final. They're making a lot of noise, they're barking. They may try and do something, but there's no court that's ever going to prevent this from happening.

FLOCK: I appreciate the perspective. Thank you.

CIOLINO: Thank you.

FLOCK: That's going to be a question that we're going to want to put to some legal minds as well, because of the unprecedented nature of all of this. We're on ground here that has not been trod before. So it's going to be hard to see exactly, you know, exactly what's going to happen. You know, as I said, we're breaking new ground as we speak.

Some members of the "Tribune" team that have been working on this story here behind me. This is Maurice Possley. Hi. Jeff Flock from CNN. You've been writing stories about this issue for a long number of years, haven't you?

MAURICE POSSLEY, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Since really starting in late 1998 was when we went after prosecutorial misconduct, and then it just kind of snowballed from one to the other.

FLOCK: The governor has cited your series at the "Tribune" for really helping to change his mind. And I guess that, as a journalist, is one of the things maybe you do what you do for?

POSSLEY: Well, we try to enlighten the public. And in this case, I think we enlightened the governor.

FLOCK: At what point, though -- as you know, you also talked to victims families about this sort of thing. How do they reconcile this?

POSSLEY: I think it's a really difficult -- a difficult thing for them, and I think essentially, the governor talked about it. That even the guilty need fairness. And out of that comes the victims being sometimes cheated in the sense that they get the wrong person. And the real person gets away.

FLOCK: And that's not justice.

POSSLEY: And that's not justice. Everybody needs some justice. And, you know, it's a moral thing, too. I mean, he addressed that a little bit in terms of what is it that we need? Are we trying to soothe someone or are we trying to get fairness and justice?

FLOCK: Is there anything in your view, and I know you're not an attorney either, but that anyone can do about this? Is there any way that the legislature takes any kind of action? Is there anything any of the prosecutors are going to do? Dick Devine said he'll take a look at whatever he could possibly do to try and find a flaw here.

POSSLEY: Find a flaw in the system? I think the system has been shown that it has many, many flaws. The question is, it's a human system, can it ever be perfect? The answer is no. I think that the commission that was appointed by the governor has shown there are ways to do it that can fix it in a way that we can be assured of a higher level of accuracy and fairness. You know, some would argue that it can never be completely fair. But if we're going to have this machinery, let's at least have it work to a higher degree of certainty.

FLOCK: Maurice Possley, I appreciate the time. One of the "Tribune" reporters who have been writing diligently on this topic for years. Heidi, back to you.

COLLINS: Jeff, we've got Jeffrey Toobin, who is standing by, CNN legal analyst, to bring some more perspective to this, and Kendall Coffey, one more time, a former U.S. attorney.

But Jeff, before we let you go, I do want to know if you have any way of knowing, I know that that crowd is pretty big there. Jeff Flock, I know that the crowd is pretty big there, but I'm wondering if victims families were there at all, or if they were invited to this speech that the governor just gave? Any way to tell?

FLOCK: I must tell you that, no, they were not invited. And this was a very reasonably well controlled group. So, no. This by no means is a cross-section of the people out there.

You know, I also see Rob Warden over here. And I wonder if I can get in his ear real quick. Hey, Rob. Hi. Jeff Flock, live on CNN right now. Another man who has been fighting this a long time, both as a journalist and now here with the Center for Wrongful Convictions. ROB WARDEN, CENTER ON WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS: Center on Wrongful Convictions. We're against them, you know.

FLOCK: I was going say. I made you -- I turned you around there. This is -- has got to be a culmination of your efforts here?

WARDEN: This is really an historic moment. And I think it's going to have reverberations throughout the country. There are 37 down -- 37 more states to go.

(CROSSTALK)

FLOCK: But you know this was not a cross-section of the populace here. And when you do the polls, you know that you're on the minority side of the issue?

WARDEN: Well, except that we noticed that the salience of this issue among the proponents is much less than it used to be, and we believed for a long time that all of the facts are on our side. If you can only get intelligent, open-minded people to listen, this will be the result. And this is a step in that direction.

Before people simply weren't listening. But this is a seminal event.

FLOCK: Before we get away, I also want to ask about this governor. Would there be any way for a governor who was not ending his political career to have taken the kind of action this governor took today? Really?

WARDEN: Well, you know, Abraham Lincoln did it during his tenure. He commuted 264 sentences in Dakota and Minnesota.

FLOCK: We don't want to talk about how he wound up?

WARDEN: Well, no. But that's not why, by the way. But it's been done and I think it can be done, and the death penalty is a medieval relic, it's simply time that we -- for us to get rid of it. And it's only a matter of time until we join the rest of the world in doing so.

FLOCK: Rob Warden, I appreciate the time. Thank you, sir. Rob Warden, as we said here, with the Center on Wrongful Convictions, here at Northwestern University law school -- Heidi.

COLLINS: All right, Jeff Flock, stick around if you could, please. Kendall Coffey, we have him back now with us, former U.S. attorney, talking a little bit about who actually was at that speech today. Why wouldn't the victims families have been invited? Obviously the governor had to know this would not have been a speech that would have been easy for them to hear, but he talked about sleeping better tonight. I would think that maybe he would sleep better tonight putting himself out there in front of both sides and knowing out of respect for the victims families as well, that this decision would be made in front of both sides. COFFEY: If there had been victims families there, there would have been tears, there would have been angry cries of rage, because there's no mistaking that while this has been acclaimed in a friendly crowd, for victims families, this is the culmination of a nightmare, and a denial -- a sense of betrayal that their loss will not receive the vindication that they believe they were entitled to under the system.

COLLINS: All right. Thank you, Kendall. We also want to make sure that Jeffrey Toobin, our CNN legal analyst, is now with us by phone. Jeffrey, can you give us your perspective a little bit on this?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think this is really an extraordinary day in the history of American law. This is without precedence, certainly in modern American legal history, and it's going to be a turning point. Frankly, I don't know in which direction. It may lead to a great deal of revulsion, anger against the governor's circumventing of the legal system, or it may start other states moving in the same direction.

But certainly, the debate over the death penalty will never be the same after what Governor Ryan has done today.

COLLINS: Jeffrey, tell us again what the next step is? Jeff Flock got into it a little bit for us a little bit on the floor at Northwestern there. Tell us a little bit about what will happen next and what the opportunities are for changing this decision at all?

TOOBIN: As I understand it, there is no next step. This is a final decision. This is a decision that is committed to the discretion of the governor. He can exercise it as he wants, or not exercise it.

I think these men will not be executed. That decision has been made. There's no -- there's no appeal. There's no further legal proceedings.

The interesting question now is what happens -- one of the many interesting questions, is what happens in Illinois with further trials? Now that there's going to be a new governor. Will he begin to commute sentences? I certainly doubt it. But, you know, the debate is changed forever.

COLLINS: All right. A final thought from both of you, if we could. Kendall Coffey, we'll let you go first.

COFFEY: Well, I think that this is certainly going to reinvigorate the debate over the death penalty. What I don't think you're going to see is some other governors tomorrow stepping up and announcing a moratorium or commutation of sentences. If anything, it is more likely that the legislature and the people of Illinois may want to revise their pardon procedures so that a governor can't do this kind of thing on his own again.

But what the focus has to be for death penalty opponents is, as is being done more and more, prove that innocent men are wrongly put on death row. That is what will ultimately cause some reevaluation of the system.

COLLINS: All right, Kendall Coffey, former U.S. attorney, we do appreciate it you being here today. Jeffrey Toobin, your final thought on this?

TOOBIN: Three letters. D-N-A. That's why this decision was made. The growth of DNA evidence and its ability to prove with certainty that innocent people have been convicted of various crimes, including, of course, murder, and resulting in the death penalty, that's what led to this decision. Without DNA evidence, without the ability to prove with certainty that innocent people have been convicted of these crimes, this whole movement, I don't think, would ever have reached this far.

COLLINS: All right, Jeffrey Toobin, our CNN legal analyst. Thank you.

Jeff Flock, back at Northwestern University. Want to go back to you for just a moment. I understand that you have someone who has been previously pardoned in the state of Illinois. Right?

FLOCK: Well, it's a man who was pardoned yesterday. This is Aaron Patterson, one of the men of the hour here. You know, we're talking about the fairness of this. Obviously, you know, if you're not -- if you're innocent, that's one thing. But there are men on death row that aren't innocent.

AARON PATTERSON, FREED FROM DEATH ROW: Yes.

FLOCK: And what do you say to the victims families who hear what the governor said today and are anguished?

PATTERSON: No. This is what I'm going say to the victims families. I want to meet with all of the victims families. I was on death row, every inmate on death row. I know each one of them personally or indirectly, right? And I can give them a firsthand interpretation of what these individuals are about, you know, how they are living on death row and everything. I just left death row. I know everything that they would want to know.

FLOCK: And you know some of them are guilty?

PATTERSON: Yes, they are guilty, but some are redeemable, too. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is a redeemable individual.

FLOCK: But to these family members, who have heard a sentence of death be pronounced and feel that is going to bring closure to them -- I don't know if you've lost anyone in your life...

PATTERSON: Yes, I did. I lost a bunch of people in the last 17 years. You know? And I was emotionally fooled by the circumstances, right? But I understand how things happen, you know. And if -- I just don't want to be a part of a system that -- that does murder -- you know, one -- kill one and then you kill another in return. You know?

FLOCK: May I ask you if you had an opinion about the death penalty yourself before you got ensnared in the justice system?

PATTERSON: I never really thought about the death penalty, other than what was going in the streets, you know. That type of street justice, right? But this is a wake-up call for me. This is a wake-up call. And I was on death row. And it's a lot of mentally ill men on death row. We are every concerned about them being put in prison population. There are innocent men on death row, like Ronald Kleiner (ph). Hey, let me tell you about Ronald Kleiner (ph).

FLOCK: He is one of the men you're looking to try to...

PATTERSON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) been held hostage in (UNINTELLIGIBLE). He should be released.

FLOCK: So let me ask you this question. You know what it would be like now. These men will leave death row and they will go into the general prison population. Correct?

PATTERSON: That's no country club.

FLOCK: What will that be like?

PATTERSON: That's no country club. You can get killed in prison population. As the governor explained, it is no fun in prison in a six by 12 cell.

FLOCK: Let me ask you this, do you think the man standing next to you, Paul Ciolino (ph), told me...

PATTERSON: Saved my life.

FLOCK: That he thinks it's worse punishment to be in prison for life than it is to be executed. What do you think?

PATTERSON: It is. It's the installment plan of the death penalty. The stress factor is unbelievable. We've seen three guys die within a month, a couple of months ago. Franky Red (ph), Harley Ray Davidson (ph) and Donald Bull (ph). A strong guy, Donald Bull (ph). And the stress was just unbearable. The man had a heart attack, an aneurysm. You know?

FLOCK: But you understand some people in the general populace would be hard to be -- to develop sympathy for somebody who is on death row for killing people?

PATTERSON: Like I said. I've been around a lot of these guys for over 17 years. I've giving you firsthand information. Some of these guys have turned their life around. Some of these guys are innocent -- I was innocent. If the governor didn't pardon me, I'd still be sitting on death row right now.

CIOLINO: Jeff, we don't want sympathy. We want an even playing field. Aaron Patterson was convicted in an unfair system. If he'd have had the breaks that should have been afforded to him initially, he'd have never been convicted of this crime. He wouldn't have had 17 years of his life ripped from him, he wouldn't have lost family members who are dead. This guy was innocent of that crime. And if we have an even playing field, we don't have these mistakes.

FLOCK: I've got to ask his lawyer, Flint Taylor, is there a way to reform this system, in your view?

FLINT TAYLOR, ATTORNEY: No. Definitely not. You look at this man. The man was tortured, put on death row because he was innocent. Many more men the same way. We've been letting people off death row now for how many years? It's up to 17 people off of death row. There's no way to reform the system. How long are we going to try to reform a system that's not reformable?

FLOCK: But it seems when we do the polls, the general populace wants there to be a death penalty. Are you concerned it's a backlash against this, because of this unprecedented dramatic action by the governor that is going to set you back?

TAYLOR: I certainly hope not. I think people are open-minded out there. We were in a restaurant in Dwight, Illinois, where there is a woman's prison, eating his first meal. And what did the people say? The people, the waitress said and a man who walked in the restaurant, what did they say? They said, congratulations, Aaron. We used to be for the death penalty, but too many innocent people have been executed, and have been on death row. I'm against the death penalty.

This is a truck stop in Dwight, Illinois. So I think there's hope, and I think that what the governor did is very hopeful, and I think it will resonate across the entire country.

FLOCK: Flint Taylor, I appreciate it.

Last word to you, Aaron Patterson. Last word to you.

PATTERSON: Remember these names once again. Nathan Fields (ph), Ronny Kitchens (ph), Hartes Brown (ph).

FLOCK: These are men on death row?

PATTERSON: Innocent on death row. Some of you news media need to get on top of these cases. Ronald Kleiner (ph). Ronald Kleiner (ph). You know?

FLOCK: You're trying to have people remember them like people remembered you?

PATTERSON: Because every time you see me, you're going to remember these names. And I'm going to tell you another thing, I will meet with Mayor Daley this week, and by Thursday I will meet with Dick Devine. Dick Devine has a whole lot to say.

FLOCK: I hear you. Mr. Patterson, I appreciate your time. Mr. Taylor, thank you, Paul, appreciate the time. One side of the story, but a very passionate side of the story being expressed here in Chicago today -- Heidi.

COLLINS: All right. Jeff Flock at Northwestern University getting all of the reaction from that room from Governor Ryan's commutation announcement earlier today; just moments ago, 157 commutations offered there. This man, Aaron Patterson, we just spoke with, 24 hours after learning he is a pardoned man, a free man.

All right. There will be more news on "CNN SATURDAY." Fredricka Whitfield is coming up next.

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