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Court upholds ex-governor's authority to clear death row

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Friday that former Gov. George Ryan had the power to commute the sentences of everyone on the state's death row before he left office last year.

The justices found that a governor's pardon power is essentially unreviewable.

The Republican governor commuted the sentences of 167 inmates and pardoned four others three years after he had halted all state executions over concerns of unjust convictions.

The state attorney general challenged Ryan's constitutional authority in 32 of the cases, arguing some inmates hadn't sought clemency as required by state law and others didn't have death sentences at the time because their cases were being appealed.

The high court disagreed. "We believe that the grant of authority given the governor . . . is sufficiently broad to allow former Gov. Ryan to do what he did," Justice Bob Thomas wrote for the majority.

No dissents were filed Friday, though the justices said they felt pardons and commutations should be handled individually, rather than in the mass fashion Ryan used when he cleared death row.

"I think it gives us an opportunity to move on," Ryan said. He added that he reviewed each case and had no regrets about the blanket clemency.

Ryan placed a moratorium on executions after it was discovered that 13 Illinois death row inmates had been wrongly convicted.

State lawmakers approved a package of bills last spring designed to reform the death penalty system, including giving the Supreme Court greater power to toss out unjust verdicts, giving defendants more access to evidence and barring the death penalty in cases that depend on a single witness.