(CBS) – Nelson Mandela influenced George Ryan’s controversial 2003 decision to clear Illinois’ Death Row a decade ago, the former governor said during a memorial service honoring the humanitarian Sunday.
Ryan, a free man since July after serving more than five years in prison for a federal corruption conviction, spoke during a memorial service for Mandela held at Beloved Community Christian Church of God in Christ in Chicago.
The Kankakee Republican recounted how Mandela called him 10 years ago in hopes of persuading him to spare the lives of the state’s condemned inmates. Ryan earlier had suspended executions after some Death Row inmates were exonerated, and he ultimately commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison in January 2003.
“At that time, I hadn’t decided what my decision was going to be, but Nelson Mandela called me from South Africa and asked me to do what I did, and it had an impact on what my actions were,” Ryan said.
The two men, Ryan recalled, had met during the governor’s trade mission to both Cuba and South Africa in the year 2000. Ryan said he was honored to spend 30 minutes with Mandela in his homeland.
“President Mandela transcended the boundaries of South Africa and emerged as the world’s beloved Mandiba, or ‘the father,’ as he was known. He was a towering figure of courage and tenacity and forgiveness,” the former governor said.
During his warmly received speech, Ryan said nothing about his willingness to forgive the prosecutors or the witnesses against him in his corruption trial.
He left without taking reporters’ questions.
Earlier, Ryan said that at first Mandela had declined to meet with him on that trade mission. Ryan said he asked an intermediary to plead on his behalf, and the meeting came off after all.
That intermediary: Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Mandela, who died at the age of 95 earlier this month, was laid to rest in his own country Sunday.