Dey: Controversy over Illinois' ban on executions not over yet
Regrets — he's had a few. But, then again, too few to mention.
Well, except for that one.
"I regretted killing that Greek fella," former Gov. George Ryan said in a recent interview.
The 80-year-old convicted felon was referring to mass murderer Andrew Kokoraleis.
Ryan didn't kill anybody. Despite his tough talk — Ryan once said during a legislative debate that he'd be happy to throw the electric-chair switch himself — the onetime pharmacist was remarkably squeamish when it came to legal executions.
But in March 1999, he declined to delay or commute Kokoraleis' sentence, and the 35-year-old was put to death by lethal injection.
"Repent, ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," said Kokoraleis, another inmate who found God at death's door.
Ryan later explained that "some crimes are so horrendous ... that society has a right to demand the ultimate penalty."
But in the aftermath, the word came that there would be no more executions under Ryan's watch, a whispered stance that expanded into an official moratorium. In January 2003 — on the brink of his exile into private life — Ryan ordered a mass commutation for the 167 inmates on death row in Illinois.
The death penalty is a dead issue in Illinois, put to an official end not because of moral qualms but out of concern that an innocent person might be executed.
Illinois is filled with stories of wrongful murder convictions and inmates freed from death row — Rolando Cruz, the Ford Heights Four, Randy Steidl.
Andrew Kokoraleis is not among them. Indeed, he, along with mass murderers like John Wayne Gacy and Henry Brisbane, is the poster boy for the ultimate punishment.
The man whose death Ryan regrets so many years later was part of a four-man group dubbed the "Ripper Crew," a Satanic cult whose members kidnapped women and then tortured and killed them. They kept women's body parts as souvenirs.
Kokoraleis later confessed to nearly 20 murders in the Chicago area. Three others — Kokoraleis' brother Thomas, Edward Spreitzer and group leader Robin Gecht — were convicted of various crimes in the multi-year spree.
Ryan commuted Spreitzer's death penalty to life in prison. Gecht won't be eligible for parole until 2042. But 54-year-old Thomas Kokoraleis, convicted of murder and rape, is scheduled to be paroled in 2017.
There are two schools of thought regarding Ryan and the death penalty:
— One theory is that he was genuinely offended by the possibility of executing an innocent man and resolved to change the system, no matter what the cost.
— The other is that his legitimate concerns grew increasingly strong as his popularity fell in the face of the federal corruption investigation that destroyed his political career. Ultimately, anti-death penalty audiences were among the few places Ryan could go and receive rock-star treatment. Further, cynics contend, Ryan emptied Death Row in a Hail Mary effort to win sympathy from potential jurors when and if he ever went to trial.
Ironically, at Ryan's trial, one holdout juror, a black woman, was not swayed by the overwhelming evidence and refused to convict. She ultimately was removed from the jury for refusing to deliberate, and an alternate juror who took her place sealed Ryan's fate.
It would take a mind-reader to know the truth.
But there is no doubt that Ryan, among others, was deeply disturbed when Anthony Porter, a Chicago man convicted of multiple murders, was released from prison after an investigation by a Northwestern University journalism class led by Professor David Protess. At one point, Porter was perilously close to execution.
"How does an innocent man sit on death row for 15 years and get no relief? And that piqued my interest, Anthony Porter," Ryan told reporters.
Ryan created a commission led by Paul Simon, the former U.S. senator and noted death penalty foe, to study the issue and make recommendations. The commission recommended the death penalty be abolished. The Illinois Supreme Court oversaw its own study of procedural issues in death penalty cases and implemented a variety of changes.
But years came and went with Illinois' death penalty law in place, new defendants sentenced to death and the moratorium in place. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now serving a lengthy prison term, embraced the moratorium, as did Gov. Pat Quinn, a self-proclaimed supporter of the death penalty.
Finally, Illinois legislators acted in January 2011. As is often the case when they face tough issues, members of the House and Senate acted in a cowardly fashion. They abolished the death penalty in a post-election, lame-duck session, with many outgoing legislators voting yes with the knowledge they would never have to account for the vote with the public. Gov. Quinn signed the law and commuted the sentences of Death Row's new residents.
But controversy about the death penalty still reigns, and the public may hear more about it in the coming months.
There are second thoughts about Anthony Porter's claimed innocence. The professor who led the class that found evidence exonerating Porter was forced out by Northwestern. Alstory Simon, the man who was convicted and sent to prison for the Porter murders, alleges he was framed by Professor Protess' investigator, an assertion now under investigation by Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. When Porter filed a civil lawsuit seeking $24 million in compensation, the jury that heard the evidence — including credible testimony of Porter's guilt — rejected his claim.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 217-351-5369.