Former Illinois Governor Sentenced to Prison

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was sentenced Wednesday to more than six years behind bars. The former governor, who stunned the world in 2003 when he suspended executions and cleared out death row in his state, was found guilty of racketeering and other charges.

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The former governor of Illinois, who won international acclaim from death penalty opponents when he declared a moratorium on state executions, has been sentenced to prison.

Former Governor George Ryan will go to a federal prison for steering lucrative state contracts to political insiders in return for vacations and other benefits.

NPR's Cheryl Corley has this story.

CHERYL CORLEY: George Ryan never took the witness stand during his trial, but before he was sentenced he did address the court saying he realized people have lost faith in government. The former governor said the people of Illinois had expected more from him and he'd let them down.

Ryan, who has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, said he was proud of his accomplishments, but he should have been more diligent, more watchful, and he called the day the saddest in his life. Outside the courtroom, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called it sad, too.

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (U.S. Attorney): I would hope that somewhere out there, at some point, people will stop and think and look at what's happening and realizing just how horrible corruption is, what it does to other people, what it does to the victims, and last, what it does to the people who get caught doing it. And maybe at some point it will sink in and this will stop.

CORLEY: Ryan was convicted last April of racketeering, mail fraud and other chargers. Prosecutors said he doled out big-money contracts and leases to political insiders in exchange for a free vacation to the Caribbean and other places, and valuables, including cigars, books and a golf bag for him and family members.

Federal Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer sentenced him to six and a half years. Defense attorneys had argued for a shorter prison term, citing Ryan's age - he's 72 -and his health problems. Ryan said the government's long running investigation had been a toll on his family, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins agreed.

Mr. PATRICK COLLINS (Assistant U.S. Attorney): As we said in court, we don't take issue with that. There certainly is victimization of innocent people on the defendant's side of the ledger. But I think that pain, as serious and strong as it is, pales in comparison to some of the pain that was suffered by the victims of the corruption in this case.

CORLEY: Those victims, said Collins, included the public, people who were trying to conduct honest business with the state, and even more so six children who died in a fiery car crash more than ten years ago. The government's probe began after investigators found a truck driver involved in the crash had obtained his driver's license illegally by paying a bribe to workers in the secretary of state's office, which Ryan headed at the time.

So now, Ryan has become the third former governor of Illinois to be convicted of a crime, but supporters say that will not be his legacy. As governor, Ryan put a stop to executions after 13 death row inmates were found to be wrongly convicted. Before he left office, he also cleared death row, commuting sentences and pardoning inmates.

Rob Warden, who heads the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, says it is Ryan's legacy of reforming capital punishment that will survive.

Mr. ROB WARDEN (Executive Director, Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University): And I also believe that it is really a noble legacy. It's probably the - one of the more courageous things that any Illinois governor has done in the arena of criminal justice.

CORLEY: Ryan's lead attorney, Dan Webb, says he's still working to repair Ryan's current reputation. He says he's convinced that the jury deliberations were faulty, since two jurors were dismissed before arriving at a verdict. He's appealing Ryan's conviction.

Mr. DAN WEBB (Attorney for George Ryan): And based on the jury deliberations, we are very hopeful that someday this conviction will be reversed and George Ryan will be vindicated and this conviction will be put behind him.

CORLEY: George Ryan is to report to prison on January 4th. His attorneys are trying to keep him free on bond pending his appeal.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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