by Jeff Fleischer(Medill News Service, November 14, 2002)
At the end of a speech Thursday detailing his change of heart on the death penalty issue, Gov. George Ryan had a gift for a member of the audience.
“One of the few perks of this job is that occasionally you can bring some good news to people,” Ryan said. “I received the file on Paula Gray this morning from the Prisoner Review Board. This morning, I pardoned Paula Gray.”
The court vacated Gray’s sentence in July 2001, but Ryan’s pardon officially cleanses her record. Gray had been indicted for perjury and murder as part of the 1978 Ford Heights Four case.
Gray was 17 when police and prosecutors made her testify against defendants Dennis Williams, Verneal Jimerson, Kenneth Adams and Willie Raines. Gray, whose IQ is below 70, later recanted her testimony and said police told her to lie.
“As for Paula, the state’s attorney on the case played hardball. They indicted her for perjury and murder,” Ryan said. “Paula Gray, who was frightened of being away from her family, was sent to Cook County Jail, where she was repeatedly assaulted.”
Both Gray and Williams were in attendance at Thursday’s speech, and hugged each other upon Ryan’s announcement while the crowd gave a standing ovation.
Ryan’s address headlined the 10th annual Public Interest Law Week at Northwestern University Law School, which houses the Center on Wrongful Convictions.
The governor said Gray’s case was a prime example of the problems with capital punishment that made him re-examine his views after becoming Illinois governor.
“I never planned on being involved, frankly, in the debate over capital punishment, or even in examining the system,” Ryan said. “Capital punishment, to me, was something I thought of only in the abstract.”
Ryan first entered the state General Assembly in 1973, and voted to reinstate the Illinois death penalty four years later.
“I believed in the system, so I supported putting the tough-on-crime law back on the books, just like a lot of other legislators did,” Ryan said.
The governor said the case of Anthony Porter, a mentally handicapped man on Death Row whose conviction was overturned in 1998, made him question his thinking.
“Here’s a fellow who sat in jail for 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit,” Ryan said. “Can you imagine 17 years of your life taken away? And that was the 10th mistake, the 10th mistake to be freed and exonerated. Time after time, the system failed.”
That case spurred Ryan’s 2000 moratorium on executions and his recently completed clemency hearings, in which Death Row inmates argued for commutations to life in prison.
“I was concerned that the final life-or-death decision was in my hands. I’m a pharmacist who had the good fortune to be elected governor of this great state,” Ryan said. “Now suddenly, I shouldered the burden of making the decisions about life and death.
“Instead of filling orders for life-saving drugs, my job now was to decide who was going to be injected with lethal drugs.”
Northwestern President Henry Bienen praised Ryan for his leadership on death-penalty issues.
“I think George Ryan has simply been a great governor of the state of Illinois,” Bienen said. “He’s been a man of great personal and political courage.”
Ryan deflected the praise, saying he was only doing “what’s right.” The true heroes, he said, were the Northwestern students who investigated cases like the Ford Heights Four and uncovered the evidence that led to exoneration.
“These were innocent people who were found guilty by a jury, found guilty in the appeals process at the highest levels of the country,” Ryan said. “Yet many of the 13 that we freed from Death Row, in spite of all that scrutiny, were not freed by the justice system, but they were freed by journalism students and law students.”
Gary Gauger, who was falsely convicted in the 1993 murder of his parents, also praised the students for their work on his behalf.
“It’s been heard around the world,” Gauger said. “We have a movement here and I applaud you all.”