The unprecedented move, the most radical since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976, is likely to spark a furious debate across the US.
"I'm going to sleep well tonight knowing that I made the right decision," said Governor Ryan.
"Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious - and therefore immoral - I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," he said.
On Friday, Governor Ryan pardoned four death row inmates convicted of murder, all of whom said that confessions were beaten out of them by police in Chicago.
Leroy Orange, one of the men pardoned, was at Northwestern University Law School to hear Governor Ryan announce the blanket commutation of death sentences in the state.
Mr Orange, who had spent 19 years in prison after being convicted of fatal stabbings, spoke of his relief at being released.
"A lot of pressure was lifted from me that I didn't realise was on me."
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Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who takes over as Illinois governor on Monday, said Mr Ryan has been wrong to commute all death sentences."There is no one-size-fits-all approach," he said. "We're talking about people who committed murder."
But Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, called for a moratorium on executions and a national review of the death penalty.
A commission set up in Illinois by Governor Ryan found that the death sentences were given disproportionately to the poor, people from ethnic minorities and in cases in which informers' evidence was used.
The results changed the governor's own mind. In 1998, he had been elected to the post as a supporter of the death penalty.
"How many more cases of wrongful convictions have to occur?" asked Governor Ryan.
He had halted executions three years ago, after courts found that 13 death row inmates had been wrongly convicted, since Illinois resumed capital punishment in 1977.
The country's main anti-death penalty group applauded Governor Ryan's move."This is a watershed moment, a turning point in the debate over capital punishment in the United States," said Steven Hawkins, of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
But families of those killed in the cases under review were dismayed.
"My son [William] is in the ground for 17 years and justice is not done," said Vern Fuling.
William Fuling was murdered in 1985, and now his killer will serve life imprisonment, instead of facing execution.
"This is like a mockery," said Mr Fuling.
Ollie Dodds saw Madison Hobley, the man convicted of starting a fire which killed her daughter Johnnie, walk free on Friday.
"He doesn't deserve to be out there," she said.
Governor Ryan's decision was hard to take, she added.
"I don't know how he could do that."
Governor George Ryan said almost all of the inmates will now serve life sentences because his state's death penalty system is deeply flawed.
"How many more cases of wrongful conviction have to occur, before we can all agree, that this system in Illinois is broken," he said.
In a speech Saturday in Chicago, Governor Ryan said the system is capricious and arbitrary.
He said the United State is out of step with its allies around the world in allowing the death penalty.
The governor received a call from former South African leader Nelson Mandela and a letter from Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu this week before making his decisions for clemency.
Mr. Ryan, whose term as governor ends Monday, has raised serious questions about the administration of the death penalty since taking office.
His reviews of the legal system have prompted new questions about capital punishment in other states.
ABC News - January 11, 2003
CHICAGO Jan. 11 — Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of every inmate on Illinois' death row in an unprecedented action, saying the "demon of error" makes the state's death penalty process immoral. Ryan's action less than two days before leaving office capped his three-year campaign to reform the death penalty process that began when he declared a moratorium on executions. On Friday, he pardoned four death row inmates who he said were wrongfully convicted. Some of the men Ryan pardoned were in the audience for his nationally televised speech at Northwestern University law school, during which he framed the death penalty issue as "one of the great civil rights struggles of our time." Ryan said three years of study since he declared a moratorium on executions in 2000 only raised more questions about the how the death penalty is imposed in Illinois. He cited problems with trials, sentencing, the appeals process and the state's "spectacular failure" to reform a system that has condemned innocent men to die. "Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die," Ryan said. "Because of all these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates." Ryan said he contemplated whether he'd be able to live with himself and decided he had no choice but to commute all the sentences. He sympathized with the families of murder victims, but said that their pain was only made worse because the capital punishment process leaves them in "legal limbo" as the appeals process plays out. "Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious and therefore immoral I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," Ryan said. The State Corrections Department said there are now 156 inmates on death row, and another person has been sentenced to death but is not yet in state custody. The sentences of all but three of the death row inmates will be commuted to life in prison without parole, Ryan said. Three inmates will have their sentences reduced to less than life in prison, meaning that they could eventually be released. Ryan spokesman Dennis Culloton said none of the three would be released immediately. Ryan's decision prompted an explosion of protest from prosecutors and incoming Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, who called blanket clemency "a big mistake." Blagojevich said cases should be considered individually, adding "You're talking about people who've committed murder." Blagojevich said he doesn't intend to lift the moratorium on executions, but he also doesn't plan to intervene if courts impose death sentences in new cases. Peoria County State's Attorney Kevin Lyons attacked Ryan's use of the governor's clemency powers, among the broadest in the country. "The great, great majority of these people that have petitioned for commutation ... did not even contest their guilt. He's disingenuous when he says that certainty is the issue," Lyons said. While Ryan issued four pardons Friday of death row inmates who he said were innocent but coerced into making false confessions by police torture, his commutations include some of the state's most notorious convicted killers. Among those receiving clemency are a man and woman who murdered a pregnant woman, her 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, and cut the baby from her womb. The baby survived. Others on death row include two brothers who beat a sleeping couple to death with baseball bats and a father who tortured his mute, severely retarded and handicapped stepdaughter for five years until she died. Illinois has the eighth largest death row in the nation. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, Illinois has executed 12 men but released 13 others from death row because new evidence exonerated them or flaws were found in the way their cases were handled. Other governors have issued commutations, but nothing on the scale of what Ryan has done. The most recent precedent for blanket clemency came in 1986 when the governor of New Mexico commuted the death sentences of the state's five death row inmates. "The only other thing that would match what he's done is in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death penalty and 600 death sentences were reduced to life with that decision," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Ryan explained his decision in a letter to families of victims of the death row inmates, saying he is prepared to live with the fact that all people won't accept his actions. "I am not prepared to take the risk that we may execute an innocent person or execute someone who really was not sentenced to death in a fair proceeding or under a reformed capital punishment system," Ryan said in the letter, dated Friday. After learning of the commutations Saturday morning, Vern Feuling, whose son was murdered in 1985, was angry that the man convicted of the killing, Andrew Johnson, was taken off death row. "My son is in the ground for 17 years and justice is not done," Feuling said. "This is like a mockery." On Friday, Ryan announced he was granting pardons to four death row inmates. Hours later, Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley and Leroy Orange walked out of prison. The fourth inmate, Stanley Howard remains in prison on another charge. Ryan pardoned the three, along with Howard, saying they were tortured into making false confessions. Howard was convicted of a separate crime and not released. Ryan has been at the center of the debate over capital punishment in the United States ever since he halted executions in Illinois three years ago. Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine said the future of the four men should have been decided by the courts. "Instead, they were ripped away from (the courts) by a man who is a pharmacist by training and a politician by trade," he said. Devine also criticized Ryan for pardoning the men and not consulting with his office before making his decision. "Yes the system is broken and the governor broke it today," Devine said Friday. Devine's office is trying determine if the pardons could be challenged, but Devine said the clemency powers for an Illinois governor are among the broadest in the country. Patterson, one of the men pardoned Friday, praised the governor. "It took a lot of courage for what he did," Patterson said. "I was hoping for the best but I wasn't sure if he was going really to have the heart and the guts to make that call." "It's unbelievable," he said. "Miracles do happen."
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