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24 Crim. Just. 26 (2009-2010)
Gubernatorial Clemency Powers: Justice or Mercy

handle is hein.journals/cjust24 and id is 156 raw text is: JUSTICE or MERCY?
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ust days before leaving office on January 11, 2003, II-
inois Governor George Ryan commuted the sentenc-
es of every inmate on Illinois' death row. In total, 167
convicts were taken off death row and given life sentences
without the possibility of parole. It was not an act of mercy
Governor Ryan's actions came in the wake of a three-year
study showing that the State of Illinois had executed 12
people since the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1977,
and during the same period, the state had released 13 people
based on new evidence that demonstrated their innocence.
Given that Illinois had exonerated more men than it had ex-
ecuted, Governor Ryan professed the Illinois criminal justice
system broken. Speaking at Northwestern University School
of Law, Governor Ryan said, Our capital system is haunted
by the demon of error--error in determining guilt, and er-
ror in determining who among the guilty deserves to die. In
justifying his actions, Governor Ryan recognized that he was
the last resort in the criminal justice system for those facing
the ultimate penalty in his state and said he was constitu-
tionally mandated under the state constitution to ensure that
justice was served. Invoking his broad executive power, Ryan
The Governor has the constitutional role in our state
of acting in the interest of justice and fairness. Our
state constitution provides broad power to the Gov-
ernor to issue reprieves, pardons and commutations.
Our Supreme Court has reminded inmates petition-
ing them that while errors and fairness questions may
actually exist and cannot be recognized under judicial
rules and procedural mandates, the last resort for relief
is the Governor.

(Gov. George H. Ryan, Clemency Address, Northwestern
University School of Law, Jan. 11, 2003.)
Governor Ryan's rebuke of the Illinois capital punish-
ment system and his subsequent grant of clemency were
broad both in scope and in justification, expressing the view
that Illinois governors are constitutionally mandated under
the state constitution to exercise their power to effectuate
justice. If the justifications for the exercise of executive clem-
ency were placed on a continuum of ideological frameworks
through which clemency has or should be based, Governor
Ryan's actions in 2003 exist on the polar end of the contin-
uum. On the other end of the continuum-and the basis on
which most acts of clemency are justified today-is the idea
that clemency is an executive act of mercy, not a continua-
tion of the criminal justice process. This view was articulated
by former California Governor Pete Wilson in the Brenda
Aris case.
In 1993, Governor Wilson commuted the sentence of
Brenda Aris, a woman convicted of murder in the shooting
death of her husband, a batterer who had subjected her to
horrendous abuse for 12 years. Aris, who was held captive in
her own home by her drug and alcohol abusing spouse, suf-
fered debilitating injuries such as cracked ribs and a broken
jaw as well as psychological abuse. (People v. Aris, 215 Cal.
App. 3d 1178 (Cal. Ct. App. 1989).) After serving nearly five
years of her sentence, Aris petitioned Governor Wilson for
clemency, arguing that because the trial court had refused
to allow an expert to testify about the effects of battered
woman's syndrome she had been denied a fair trial.
Unlike Governor Ryan, Governor Wilson did not inter-
pret his executive clemency power broadly. Instead he ex-

26                                                ILLUSTRATION U PUNCHSTOCK

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