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Tapes show ex-Gov. George Ryan ‘didn’t understand’ pardon

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Imprisoned former Gov. George Ryan is known around the world for clearing Illinois’ Death Row in 2003 and imposing a moratorium on the death penalty.

But the governor who pardoned more than 200 people admitted in a recently released court deposition that he “didn’t understand” the difference between two major types of pardons and that he was declaring a Chicago inmate innocent by the way he pardoned him.

That surprising admission came in a March 2010 deposition that Ryan, now 77, gave at the Terre Haute, Ind., prison where he’s serving a 6œ-year term on a federal corruption conviction.

As governor, Ryan had options when he decided to pardon inmates amid questions over whether innocent people had gone to prison as a result of confessions coerced by Chicago Police detectives.

One was to grant what’s called a general pardon. That forgives a crime — but it doesn’t forget it.

But an innocence pardon says that person is actually innocent of committing the crime.

An innocence pardon also allows a person who was wrongly convicted to file a lawsuit and try to seek damages.

That’s what happened in the case that led lawyers for the City of Chicago to Ryan and Terre Haute.

Former inmate Oscar Walden Jr. had sued the city for $15 million, claiming that now-dead police officers had physically abused him into confessing to a rape committed 60 years earlier.

In 1978, then-Gov. Jim Thompson granted Walden a general pardon. Other governors subsequently denied Walden’s petitions seeking an innocence pardon.

Then, in December 2002, Ryan granted it.

That gave Walden, a retired minister, the right to sue in federal court. He ended up losing the case — but not before Ryan was questioned, under oath, by Avi Kamionski, a lawyer for the city who tried unsuccessfully to be allowed to call Ryan to testify at Walden’s trial about why he’d granted an innocence pardon to Walden.

Kamionski asked the former governor if there were “separate kinds of pardons.”

Ryan’s answer: “I don’t know if there is or not. I learned, though, that Thompson gave a pardon based on whatever — just a general pardon. I didn’t realize that probably until just recently. Then, I gave a pardon based on innocence. Maybe at the time I didn’t understand that. I don’t know.”

Kamionski: “OK. And is that your understanding that both a general pardon and an innocence pardon, they both are given to people who are, in fact, innocent of the crimes that they committed?”

Ryan: “Yeah, I don’t know why else we’d give a pardon if you, as the pardoning agent, didn’t believe that that was the case. I don’t know why you’d give a pardon.”

Kamionski: “And when — and that the only thing that you were doing different with an innocence pardon was giving somebody almost like a right-to-sue letter?”

Ryan: “Well, I didn’t understand that at the time. I think — I thought — it maybe spelled it out more clearly that this was an innocent person that was wrongfully convicted and charged and imprisoned and to make it clear for the record that he was innocent.”

In an interview, Kamionski says, “It was kind of surprising the guy who was giving out the innocence pardons didn’t know what the definition was.”

In all, Ryan granted 212 pardons during his years as governor, and 28 of them were innocence pardons, including Walden’s in late 2002, according to data from the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office. Eight of those innocence pardons came in the period Jan. 8-10, 2003 — just before he left office — including four he granted on Jan. 10, 2003, to inmates on Death Row.

The following day — Jan. 11, 2003 — Ryan made his famous declaration that he was commuting the sentences of all 167 inmates then on Death Row to life in prison in response to a “terribly broken” system of deciding who deserves the death penalty.

Ryan’s moves to place a moratorium on death sentences and later to clear Death Row would win him a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since then.

Contributing: Dave McKinney, Lark Turner

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