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Release: Jan. 6, 2003

UI law professor signs death penalty clemency letter to Illinois governor

David Baldus, a UI law professor and nationally recognized death penalty expert, is one of 400 law school professors to sign a letter to Illinois Gov. George Ryan pointing out that U.S. leaders have in the past commuted significant numbers of criminal sentences, including the death penalty.

Ryan, a Republican, is currently reviewing for possible clemency the cases of more than 140 of the state's 160 death row inmates because 13 prisoners sentenced to death in recent years had been freed after their convictions were called into question. He also placed a moratorium on all executions until the reviews were complete.

Ryan has said he is reviewing each case individually and will not issue a blanket commutation of all death row inmates seeking clemency. Critics of Ryan's review claim that a blanket clemency of more than one or two prisoners is unprecedented, a claim refuted in the letter from the law professors. The letter urges consideration of such a clemency by explaining that a president and eight governors have issued blanket commutations of death row inmates, so such a move is not historically unprecedented. For instance, New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya commuted the sentences of all his state's death row inmates in 1986, and Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller did the same thing in 1970.

"The letter points out many examples of large numbers of commutations at one time at both the state and federal level going back to the founding of the republic," said Baldus. "It very persuasively makes the point that such an action is not at all unusual."

Baldus said the letter crossed his desk at the end of November and while he "usually doesn't sign these kinds of things," he made an exception this time.

"It's very well-written, dispassionate and factual," he said. "It's not political or ideological at all." He adds that the letter does not take a position that any or all of the death sentences should be commuted.

Ryan will make his decision before he leaves office Jan. 13.

Baldus has studied the use of the death penalty in the United States for years and is a frequent critic of its application, particularly in a racial context.