20 years after clearing death row, Illinois still has a lot to learn

We were approaching the 20th anniversary of the then government. George Ryan’s massive commutation of Illinois death row inmates to life sentences has earned him praise from global human rights leaders such as Nelson Mandela and condemnation from other politicians and victims’ families. The lessons of Discord that day—and how we got here—should inform government and criminal justice system leaders today about how to stop rising crime in Chicago.

As Ryan’s speechwriter and press secretary, I’ve been immersed in what’s wrong with Illinois’s death penalty system since Jan. 1, when the governor announced a moratorium on executions. 31, 2000.

Ryan felt compelled to act after a November 1999 series by Chicago Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong revealed that nearly half of the state’s 285 death penalty cases had been overturned and retried or sentenced. Illinois has the dubious distinction of executing 12 death row inmates while 13 others were released after a court found them not guilty. “How did this happen,” Ryan yelled at me when I briefed him on the report.

Other key findings from the Tribune include:

• At least 33 defendants sentenced to death were represented by disbarred or suspended lawyers.

• 46 convictions were based on intrinsically unreliable prison informants.

• 20 cases were based on an outdated and now disreputable 19th century crime laboratory technique.

• Thirty-five black death row inmates were convicted by an all-white jury.

• Ten people sentenced to death were tortured by the then police lieutenant colonel. Jon Burge and his District 2 midnight detectives in the 1970s and 80s.

On that cold January morning in 2003, an excited Aaron Patterson burst into the Northwestern University waiting room as the governor prepared to deliver his speech. Twenty-four hours ago, he was pardoned and released from death row — the more extraordinary powers of Illinois governors. Patterson is one of the few who deserves such leniency because his case provides some of the strongest evidence yet of police torture by the now-fired Birch and his notorious team of Southern District detectives.

Patterson, still wearing his prison overalls, asked to speak to Ryan about the death row inmates still in jail.

Patterson was my age, the son of a Chicago police lieutenant father and a schoolteacher mother. We both went to Catholic high school. But, while very smart, instead of going to college like me, he joined a gang. His father later recalled that he didn’t believe it until he found gang tattoos on his son.

Shortly before the government. George Ryan's forgiveness speech on January 1, 2003, at Northwestern Law School, where former death row inmate Aaron Patterson exhorts the crowd to support those who helped free him And more applause to others who have been wrongly convicted.

While Patterson was no angel, his history of gang fighting and shootings didn’t match the crime for which he was sentenced to death — the brutal stabbing of an elderly couple on the South Side. Detectives in District 2 rounded up the usual suspects, dropped a heater box, and centered on Patterson, a gang-related nuisance.

Like other Burge victims, he was tortured. Unlike the others, after signing the false confession, Patterson used a paperclip to inscribe on the metal bench in the interrogation room: “Aaron lied. Police threatened me with violence. Slapped plastic and suffocated me. No Lawyer or father. Sign false statements to the murderer.”

No one believed him at the time. He was convicted in 1986 and sentenced to death.

That morning in 2003 was the first time Patterson had been free since 1986. I intercepted him before he reached the governor. I whispered to him what we had in common, and told him that he had a chance to make his newfound freedom count. He calms down. A few days later, Patterson and Ryan appeared together on “The Oprah Show” as one of three former prisoners.

Months later, a lost Patterson returned to the streets and was quickly arrested again and convicted on federal charges of illegal drug and gun dealing. Burge became a federal criminal in 2011 for lying under oath about torture.

Many believe that the 2015 murder of Laquan McDonald’s by a Chicago police officer and the kneeling death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 led to a collapse in support for police officers, as well as the collapse of support in Chicago and Violent crime rates rose in other large U.S. cities.

In fact, in Chicago, the wick to this powder keg was lit decades earlier, when Patterson etched his words in a police interrogation room.

Today, with daily reports of carjackings, shootings and homicides on the streets of Chicago, many are calling for an unrestrained crime-fighting strategy. When Ryan was a state representative, he advocated for these policies in the 1970s, as he and Illinois lawmakers responded to record homicide rates by reinstating the death penalty in 1974.

A generation later, Ryan courageously stopped executions in the face of a death penalty system that proved to have all the accuracy of a coin toss.

The Bulger torture case has cost the city $210 million in legal fees and damages, attorney Flint Taylor wrote in a recent op-ed for the nonprofit news outlet Injustice Watch. The Chicago Inspector General reported that city taxpayers paid $250 million in police settlements and judgments between 2018 and 2020 alone.

We pay a higher price for community distrust, which hinders cooperation with police. We paid the price for reactionary policymaking that damaged the morale of our rank-and-file officers — most of whom, like my late father and Patterson’s father, did their jobs heroically.

The morning after death row was cleared, a priest of the Catholic diocese I was attending said from the pulpit: Whatever you think of Ryan, he is attacking the death machine of the state.

Now, if we can learn from our mistakes, it is time to rebuild the justice system.

Dennis Culloton is the CEO and founder of an issues and crisis communications firm in Chicago and a former press secretary for the previous administration.george ryan

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