January 27, 2003 12:00 PM

When Illinois Gov. George Ryan announced the biggest mass clemency in U.S. history, Nelson Mandela was delighted—but Ryan’s wife was outraged. That’s just one measure of the controversy Ryan sparked on Jan. 11, during his last hours in office, when he commuted the sentences of all 167 prisoners on death row, reducing their terms to either life or 40 years. Earlier that week, Ryan, 68, had gotten a telephone pep talk from the former South African leader. “He just wanted to tell me that America was known as the beacon of freedom and fairness and justice and that our policy on the death penalty didn’t reflect that,” he says. “He wanted me to send a signal around the world.”

Around Ryan’s own home that signal was not well received. His wife, Lura Lynn, knew that one of the lucky inmates would be Danny Edwards, who 16 years ago kidnapped and buried alive a family friend—Kankakee, Ill., businessman Stephen Small, 40, a neighbor of the Ryans’ who often babysat for their six children. Lura Lynn, 66, “was angry and disappointed,” admits Ryan. “She is a very emotional woman.”

Deep emotions, to be sure, fuel the national debate swirling around the now ex-governor. Ryan’s detractors charge that he launched his anti-execution crusade to distract the public from a bribery scandal that roiled his administration. Supporters point out that his landmark decision came only after a two-year review by a blue-ribbon panel commissioned to study the death penalty, which was reinstated in Illinois in 1977. “It took enormous courage,” says panel member Scott Turow, the novelist and former federal prosecutor. “I told him I’m proud to be a citizen of Illinois.”

In announcing the commutations, Ryan noted that 13 death row inmates had been proven innocent and nearly half of the state’s 300 capital cases had been reversed for a new trial or resentencing. Just the day before, Ryan had pardoned four prisoners who had allegedly been tortured into murder confessions by the Chicago police. He stressed that he was not letting convicted killers off easy. “Life without parole has even, at times, been described by prosecutors as a fate worse than death,” he said.

Not, however, by Cook County prosecutor Richard Devine, who claims that neither he nor any of his colleagues were consulted by Ryan’s commission. “It’s a bad decision,” he says. “It will have a tremendous impact on the criminal justice system, but even more importantly on the hundreds of families of victims, who feel they’ve been kicked in the stomach with a hobnailed boot.”

Among them is Sam Evans of Bridgeport, Ill. On Nov. 16, 1995 his pregnant daughter Debra, 28, was shot to death, her full-term baby cut from her womb and two of her children—Samantha, 10, and Joshua, 7, murdered. (The baby, Elijah, now 7, survived, along with son Jordan, 9.) Originally sentenced to death, killers Fedell Caffey and Jacqueline Williams will now serve life sentences.

“For you and me it would be worse than the death penalty,” says Evans, 54, a former junior-college sociology teacher. “For Caffey and Williams, this is the best life they’ve had—they have three square meals they don’t pay for, they have cable, they have rec rooms, they can get drugs if they want, they can have sex if they want. What are they being denied except being able to walk on the street?”

Until recently few would have accused Ryan of being soft on crime. A conservative Republican, he had supported the death penalty since childhood. Raised in Kankakee, the son of Thomas, a businessman, and his homemaker wife, Jeanette, Ryan earned a pharmacy degree from Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Mich. After a stint in the Army he married high school sweetheart Lura Lynn and was elected a state representative in 1972. He rose slowly through the ranks before snagging the governorship in 1998. His about-face on the death penalty began the next year, when inmate Anthony Porter was exonerated within 48 hours of execution after some sleuthing by Northwestern University students helped prove that another man had committed the crime. A year later Ryan declared a moratorium on all executions and impaneled his commission.

Bluff and outspoken, Ryan saw his administration blighted by a scandal that dated back to 1994. Then midway through his eight-year tenure as Illinois secretary of state, he saw dozens of his colleagues implicated in the granting of truckers’ licenses in exchange for bribes. So far at least 50 people have been convicted in the probe. Ex-Kankakee Police Chief Dean Bauer, a close friend of Ryan’s who served as his inspector general, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. The case kept Ryan from running for a second term, although he maintains his innocence and notes that “the investigation began before I became governor.”

Many observers expect him to be indicted, and Ryan himself is uncertain of his next career move. One thing is sure: He knows that his legacy will be ambiguous. “The [victims’ families] have every right to feel they were betrayed,” he said when announcing the clemency. “I hope they understand the process that I’ve been through.”

Richard Jerome

Grant Pick, Barbara Sandler and Lorna Grisby in Chicago

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