Professors Press Illinois Gov. on Clemency

George Ryan
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Law professors around the nation have some advice for Gov. George Ryan as he considers clemency for some death row convicts: Follow your conscience, and rest assured blanket clemency would be justified.

In an open letter to Ryan, signed by more than 400 law professors and set for delivery Monday, the legal scholars take exception to the view of some death penalty supporters that Ryan should only consider clemency on a case-by-case basis.

"We feel compelled to share with you our considered judgment that, in our country, the power of executive clemency is not so limited," the letter said. "To the contrary, where circumstances warrant, executive clemency should be and has in fact been used as a means to correct systemic injustice."

New York University law professor Anthony Amsterdam said the professors were sending the letter to Ryan "to make him feel that he can consult his own conscience and decide what he thinks is right."

Ryan has described blanket commutation of death sentences to life without parole as being "on the back burner" but he will consider the professors' letter, spokesman Dennis Culloton said.

The letter is the latest salvo in a public relations battle over Illinois' death row inmates.

Ryan halted the state's executions nearly three years ago after courts found that 13 death row inmates had been wrongly convicted since the state resumed capital punishment in 1977.

Now the governor is reviewing clemency requests from more than 140 death row inmates and has said he will rule before he leaves office Jan. 13. About 160 inmates are on death row.

Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine, one of those most publicly opposed to a blanket clemency, says the professors have missed the point.

"We have never disputed that the governor has unlimited powers to grant clemency, but we believe that granting blanket clemency would be an abuse of that power," said Devine's spokeswoman, Marcy Jensen.

The professors' letter doesn't take a position on whether the governor should commute all death row inmates' sentences.

New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya commuted the sentences of all his state's death row inmates in 1986. Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller did the same thing in 1970.