Ex-Illinois governor emerges, talks death penalty

KANKAKEE – George Ryan, an ex-Illinois governor and now an ex-convict, says he'd like to re-engage with the cause he left behind when he went to prison in 2007 – campaigning for the end of the death penalty in the U.S.

"Americans should come to their senses," Ryan said this week, in an hourlong interview with The Associated Press at his kitchen table.

Newly free to speak after a year of federal supervision that followed his more than five years in prison for corruption, Ryan appeared to have recovered some of his old voice and feistiness, in contrast to the subdued figure that emerged a year ago from the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, and ducked briefly into a Chicago halfway house.

At his home in Kankakee, south of Chicago, the 80-year-old Republican held forth on capital punishment, the state of American politics and the criminal justice system – though not the difficult details of his own corruption case.

He said he'd like to spend some time on the national circuit to encourage other states to follow Illinois' lead in abolishing capital punishment in 2011, which stemmed from Ryan's decision to clear death row in 2003. While he was treated as a champion by death penalty opponents at the time, he acknowledged some public figures now may have trouble openly associating with him.

"I'm an ex-convict," he said. "People tend to frown on that."

Ryan, who was governor from 1999 to 2003, was indicted in 2003 and convicted in 2006 on multiple corruption counts, including racketeering and tax fraud. He said he does not plan to discuss the details of the criminal case – to which he always maintained his innocence – though he might in an autobiography he is writing.

Ryan hasn't apologized for actions that prosecutors and jurors deemed criminal.

"I spent five years in apology," he said, bristling. "I paid the price they asked me to pay."

He also lashed out at the U.S. justice system, calling it "corrupt" and bluntly contending that the fervor with which he was prosecuted was due in part to his nationally prominent campaign to end the death penalty.

"It put a target on my back when I did what I did," he said, adding that even prison guards derided and mocked him. "It certainly didn't win me any favor with the federal authorities."

It's unclear whether Ryan's re-emergence on the public scene will be welcomed. But at least one former federal prosecutor balked at Ryan's contention that he may have been singled out because of his death penalty stance.

"It's absurd," said Jeff Cramer, a former U.S. attorney in Chicago, noting that four of Illinois' last seven governors have gone to prison. "It wasn't his political stand that made him a target. It is what he did. ... He's trying to rewrite history."

During Thursday's interview, Ryan also lamented the increased acrimony between Democrats and Republicans from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., and their unwillingness to compromise. He recalled days in the Illinois capital when the two parties would gather at the same restaurant and even discuss how to support each other's bills.

He also expressed some sympathy for his Democratic successor, Rod Blagojevich, saying the 14-year prison sentence the former governor is serving in Colorado for trying to sell President Barack Obama's old Senate seat and other pay-to-play schemes was excessive. The sentence is now under appeal.

"I wasn't a fan," he said of Blagojevich. "Irrespective, his sentence was out of line."

But Ryan displayed the most passion while discussing capital punishment. Once a fervent advocate of the death penalty, he said he agonized about approving the last execution in Illinois before he issued a moratorium in 2000.

"I killed the guy," he said of the man who had raped, kidnapped and murdered a 21-year-old Elmhurst woman. "You can't feel good about that."

As he contemplated commuting all death sentences in 2003, he said he felt increasing pressure not to do it, including from one influential politician who he remembers asking him directly not to spare one man convicted of murdering a friend's daughter. After the commutations, Ryan said the politician never spoke to him again.

Ryan may have to tread lightly, at least at first, in trying to rejoin the anti-death penalty movement.

Tom Gradel, a Chicago-area researcher who has written about Illinois corruption, said Ryan is rightly praised for what he says were sincere measures to end capital punishment. But, he added, Ryan's conviction could make it difficult for him to once again champion moral arguments.

"He lacks credibility," Gradel said. "It was destroyed by the jury."