That led Governor Ryan, a former death-penalty supporter, to issue a moratorium on executions in 2000 and convene a commission to investigate the system. Last April, that commission recommended dozens of reforms. Without such changes, the committee recommended abolishing the death penalty altogether.
But efforts to pass these changes in the legislature failed repeatedly. And by this time, the governor's own political standing had been weakened by charges that close aides had been involved in a bribes-for-licenses scandal. (The governor himself has not been charged.)
Frustrated by the lack of progress on the political front, Ryan pardoned three death-row inmates in December. Last Friday, he pardoned four more, and Saturday, he commuted the death sentences of 153 inmates to life without the possibility of parole. Three others received shorter sentences.
"Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious - and therefore immoral - I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," the governor said in his Saturday statement, two days before leaving office. "I started with this issue concerned about innocence. But once I studied, once I pondered what had become of our justice system, I came to care above all about fairness.... If the system was making so many errors in determining whether someone was guilty in the first place, how fairly and accurately was it determining which guilty defendants deserved to live and which deserved to die?"
Such concerns extend beyond Illinois. Last May, for example, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening imposed a death-penalty moratorium pending a review of allegations of unfairness. Last week, a University of Maryland study found significant prejudice in 21 years of Maryland death sentences - but in surprising ways.