Dennis Culloton: 20 years after George Ryan’s clearing of death row … – Chicago Tribune

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It’s nearing the 20th anniversary of then-Gov. George Ryan’s mass commuting of Illinois death row inmates’ sentences to life in prison, which earned him praise from global human rights leaders such as Nelson Mandela and condemnation from other politicians and victims’ families. The discordant lessons of that day — and how we got there — should inform today’s government and criminal justice system leaders seeking to stem Chicago’s rising crime.

As Ryan’s speechwriter and press secretary, I was immersed in the errors in Illinois’ capital punishment system since the governor declared a moratorium on executions on Jan. 31, 2000.

Ryan felt compelled to act after a November 1999 series by Chicago Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong revealed nearly half of the state’s 285 capital cases had been reversed for a new trial or sentencing. Illinois had the dubious distinction of executing 12 death row inmates while 13 others were released after the courts found them innocent. “How does this happen,” Ryan bellowed at me when I briefed him on the reporting.

Among other key Tribune findings:

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

• Forty-six convictions were based on inherently unreliable jailhouse informants.

• Twenty cases were based on an outdated, now discredited, 19th-century crime lab technique.

• Thirty-five Black death row inmates were convicted by all-white juries.

• Ten of those sentenced to die were tortured by then-police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his midnight crew of Area 2 detectives in the 1970s and ’80s.

Earlier that cold January 2003 morning, as the governor prepared to give his speech, an agitated Aaron Patterson charged into the holding room at Northwestern University. Twenty-four hours earlier, he had been pardoned and freed from death row — a more extraordinary power possessed by Illinois governors. Patterson was among a small handful of people found worthy of such clemency because his case presented some of the strongest evidence of police torture committed by the now-fired Burge and his notorious South Side detective squad.

Still in his prison dungarees, Patterson was demanding to talk to Ryan about death row inmates still left behind.

Patterson and I were the same age and both sons of Chicago police lieutenant fathers and teacher mothers. We both attended Catholic high schools. But while very bright, instead of heading to college as I did, he became gang-involved. His father later recounted that he refused to believe it until he found a gang tattoo on his son.

Shortly before Gov. George Ryan's clemency speech on Jan. 11, 2003, at Northwestern University Law School, ex-death row inmate Aaron Patterson exhorts the crowd to give more applause to the people who helped free him and other people who were wrongfully convicted.

Shortly before Gov. George Ryan’s clemency speech on Jan. 11, 2003, at Northwestern University Law School, ex-death row inmate Aaron Patterson exhorts the crowd to give more applause to the people who helped free him and other people who were wrongfully convicted. (Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune)

While Patterson was no angel, his history of gang fights and shootings did not match up with the crime for which he was sentenced to die — a brutal stabbing of an elderly South Side couple. Area 2 detectives rounded up the usual suspects to put down a heater case and centered on Patterson, a gang-involved nuisance.

Like other Burge victims, he was tortured. Unlike the others, after signing a false confession, Patterson used a paper clip to carve onto a metal bench in the interrogation room: “Aaron lied. Police threaten me with violence. Slapped and suffocated me with plastic. No lawyer or dad. Sign false statement to murders.”

No one believed him then. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986.

That 2003 morning was Patterson’s first as a free man since 1986. I intercepted him before he got to the governor. I whispered to him what we had in common and told him he had a chance to make his newfound freedom worth something. He calmed down. Several days later, Patterson was among three former inmates who appeared with Ryan on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Months later, a directionless 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 convict in 2011 for lying under oath about torture.

Many believe Laquan McDonald’s 2015 murder by a Chicago police officer and George Floyd’s murder at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 caused a breakdown in support for the police and the rise in violent crimes across Chicago and other American big cities.

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

Today, with daily reports of carjackings, shootings and homicides on Chicago’s streets, many are calling for no-holds-barred crime-fighting strategies. When Ryan was a state representative, he advocated for those policies in the 1970s as he and fellow Illinois lawmakers responded to record homicide rates by reinstating the death penalty in 1974.

A generation later, faced with a capital punishment system that proved to have all of the accuracy of a coin flip, Ryan courageously halted executions.

Attorney Flint Taylor recently wrote in a commentary for nonprofit news outlet Injustice Watch that Burge torture cases have cost the city $210 million in legal fees and damages. The Chicago inspector general reported city taxpayers paid $250 million in police settlements and judgments between 2018 and 2020 alone.

We’ve paid a higher price in the distrust in the community, which discourages cooperation with the police. We’ve paid for reactionary policymaking that hurts morale among rank-and-file officers — most of whom, like my late father and Patterson’s, do their jobs heroically.

The morning after death row was cleared, a priest at the Catholic parish I then attended said this from the pulpit: Whatever you think of Ryan, he attacked the machinery of death by the state.

Now, if we can learn from our mistakes, it’s time to rebuild the machinery of justice.

Dennis Culloton is CEO and founder of a Chicago issue and crisis communications firm and the former press secretary for former Gov. George Ryan.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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December 31, 2022 at 05:13PM

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