| Quality of mercy
Four years ago I was sworn in as the 39th governor of Illinois. That was just four short years ago — that’s when I was a firm believer in the American system of justice and the death penalty. I believed that the ultimate penalty for the taking of a life was administrated in a just and fair manner.
Today — three days before I end my term as governor, I stand before you to explain my frustrations and deep concerns about both the administration and the penalty of death. It is fitting that we are gathered here today at Northwestern University with the students, teachers, lawyers and investigators who first shed light on the sorrowful condition of Illinois’s death penalty system. Professors Larry Marshall, Dave Protess and their students along with investigators Paul Ciolino have gone above the call. They freed the falsely accused Ford Heights Four, they saved Anthony Porter’s life, they fought for Rolando Cruz and Alex Hernandez. They devoted time and effort on behalf of Aaron Patterson, a young man who lost 15 years of his youth sitting among the condemned, and LeRoy Orange, who lost 17 of the best years of his life on death row.
It is also proper that we are together with dedicated people like Andrea Lyon who has laboured on the front lines trying capital cases for many years and who is now devoting her passion to creating an innocence centre at De Paul University. You saved Madison Hobley's life.
Together you spared the lives and secured the freedom of 17 men — men who were wrongfully convicted and rotting in the condemned units of our state prisons. What you have achieved is of the highest calling — Thank You!
Yes, it is right that I am here with you, where, in a manner of speaking, my journey from staunch supporters of capital punishment to reformer all began. But I must tell you — since the beginning of our journey my thoughts and feelings about the death penalty have changed many, many times. I realize that over the course of my reviews I had said that I would not do blanket commutation. I have also said it was an option that was there and I would consider all options.
During my time in public office, I have always reserved my right to change my mind if I believed it to be in the best public interest, whether it be about taxes, abortions or the death penalty. But I must confess that the debate with myself has been the toughest concerning the death penalty. I suppose the reason the death penalty has been the toughest is because it is so final — the only public policy that determines who lives and who dies. In addition it is the only issue that attracts most of the legal minds across the country. I have received more advice on this issue than any other policy issue I have dealt with in my 35 years of public service. I have kept an open mind on both sides of the issues of commutation for life or death.
I have read, listened to and discussed the issue with the families of the victims as well as the families of the condemned. I know that any decision I make will not be accepted by one side or the other. I know that my decision will be just that — my decision —based on all the facts I could gather over the past three years. I may never be comfortable with my final decision, but I will know in my heart that I did my very best to do the right thing.
Having said that, I want to share a story with you: I grew up in Kankakee which even today is still a small midwestern town, a place where people tend to know each other. Steve Small was a neighbour. I watched him grow up. He would babysit my young children — which was not for the faint of heart since Lura Lynn and I had six children, five of them under the age of three. He was a bright young man who helped run the family business. He got married and he and his wife had three children of their own. Lura Lynn was especially close to him and his family. We took comfort in knowing he was there for us and we for him.
One September midnight he received a call at his home. There had been a break-in at a nearby house he was renovating. As he left his house, he was seized at gunpoint by kidnappers. His captors buried him alive in a shallow hole. He suffocated to death before police could find him.
His killer led investigators to where Steve’s body was buried. The killer, Danny Edward, was also from my home town. He now sits on death row. I also know his family. I share this story with you so that you know I do not come to this as a neophyte without having experienced a bit of the bitter pill the survivors of murder must swallow.
My responsibilities and obligations are more than my neighbours and my family. I represent all the people of Illinois, like it or not. The decision I make about our criminal justice system is felt not only here, but the world over.