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George Ryan Discusses Clemency, Death-Penalty Decisions In Court Deposition

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George Ryan

Former Gov. George Ryan addresses reporters the night before he left for prison. (Credit: CBS)

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CHICAGO (STMW) — From prison in Indiana, a sometimes combative, sometimes joking George Ryan spoke at length about his decisions regarding his controversial 2003 clemency decision, a newly-released deposition shows.

Ryan, who spoke last March from a Terre Haute, Ind. federal prison to lawyers representing the city of Chicago, answered a series of questions about why he pardoned Oscar Walden Jr., whose case was in federal court. But some of the questioning involved Ryan’s reasoning in granting other pardons and clemency.

At one point, Ryan makes a dig at the prison food.

“A little prison food would probably be good for all of you. I think it’s baloney for lunch today,” he tells attorneys and others who have visited him for the deposition.

The Chicago Sun-Times last week reported on portions of Ryan’s deposition that were made public in filings tied to a lawsuit lodged by Walden.

In response to a freedom of information request, the city has released Ryan’s entire deposition.

In the sections released Monday, Ryan sometimes shows a personal side to how his decision was made.

One of the cases he considered involved a onetime high school classmate who was on Death Row for shooting a police officer. Ryan said he bumped into the classmate’s father at a meeting.

“He said, ‘I’ve only got one question for you. Are you going to kill my son?’ ” Ryan said he was asked. “That was — that was a big impact on my decision, that statement in that meeting, that confrontation.”

Also in the deposition:

• “The families of the victims were just brutal. They threw stuff at me when I stood on the podium and swore at me and, you know, called me all kinds of names when I hadn’t really made up my mind about what I was going to do and told them that,” Ryan said of family members related to victims of crimes.

• At one point Ryan admitted spending as little as 10 minutes on petitions but at another point he said he burned the midnight oil pondering decisions.

”How can governors say we’re going to kill these people and then ask a state employee to go down and pull the switch. Who are those people to make that determination?” Ryan says.

• Ryan said he made pardon decisions based on evidence and discussions with staff. “When there was evidence there, I weighed the evidence and came up with what I thought was the best response to that evidence. I never dealt in hypothetical cases, and I don’t want to do it here.”

• Ryan appeared to keep up with the news while behind bars, making reference to current pardon decisions. Noting there is a “Big backlog there now. [Gov.] Quinn has got to clear it out. Blagojevich didn’t do anything.”

• Ryan said what propelled him to clear out Death Row and offer a slew of pardons before he left office stemmed from the case of Anthony Porter, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years.

“I turned to my wife, and I said, how the hell does that happen?” Ryan said of watching the events on the TV news. “How does an innocent man sit on death row for 15 years and gets no relief except for the students of journalism, not law students, students of journalism at Northwestern University? Tell me how that happens.

“And that piqued my interest, Anthony Porter. And I followed that case right through to commutation of 167 guys. I thought it was 177. Whatever it was. And that’s what triggered me. I still can’t believe it.”

• He pardoned Madison Hobley “because I thought he was innocent.” Ryan then said in his review of the case, he believed someone planted a gasoline can into evidence.

• Ryan is concerned about publicity over his questioning and whether he’ll be called to testify at a trial. He asks if the lawyers are going to tell the newspapers they were there to question him.

“I’m concerned that you may leave here and put out a press release and take me out of context on something I may have said. It happens a lot in my business. You just laughed. I’m not — I don’t think it’s funny. It’s a legitimate question by the way,” Ryan says. “That’s my next concern. Maybe I’m going to get called in for a trial. Is that going to happen?”

Questioning Ryan was attorney Avi T. Kamionski, who last week said there was no basis for Ryan’s pardon of Walden.

Last week, Walden lost in a trial to get the city to pay him for a rape conviction he said came after he was coerced into confessing. Jurors said after trial Walden, who is African American, was convicted of raping a white woman nearly 60 years ago. A federal jury rejected his claims of police coercion, instead clearing now-deceased police officers.

“I pardoned guys that I knew were guilty or at least thought they were, but I didn’t want any innocent people killed,” Ryan said in his deposition. “But I don’t have to tell you why I did it, what I thought about it anymore than I have to tell you why I thought why he should have it or shouldn’t have it. I just used my judgment like I did on a lot of things I did in the time I spent in government. That’s called leadership.”

Ryan, 77, who has sought release from prison since his wife’s illness last year, sometimes grew short-tempered in his interview with two lawyers of Andrew M. Hale and Associates.

Attorney Andrew Lyon, a staunch Death Row opponent who represented Ryan in the deposition, said she had no comment on Ryan’s remarks and did not know if it was the first time Ryan had given a deposition with regard to his clemency decisions. While Ryan was able to claim executive privilege in some of the questions, he was compelled to answer a litany of questions, Kamionski said.

Another Ryan lawyer and family friend, former Gov. Jim Thompson, said he wasn’t familiar with the deposition because Winston & Strawn handled only Ryan’s criminal case in federal court and not matters pertaining to clemency.

“The case should never have gone to court. It should have been tossed out. Ryan’s the reason it’s even here,” Kamionski said last week. “If Ryan didn’t pardon this guy, he’d have no claim. Why did Ryan do it? He still didn’t answer the question.”

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2010. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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