George H. Ryan Sr. was the 39th Governor of the State of Illinois. Born in 1934, the son of a pharmacist, Ryan grew up in Kankakee, Illinois. He was first elected to state office in 1972 as an Illinois State Representative. He served two terms as Minority Leader of the House of Representatives and one term as Speaker of the House. He served as Illinois Lieutenant Governor from 1983 to 1991, as Illinois Secretary of State from 1991 to 1999, and then was Governor from 1999 to 2003. Ryan was the first Governor in U.S. history to suspend the death penalty, declaring a moratorium in 2000. In 2003, as he left office, Ryan emptied death row in Illinois by issuing a blanket commutation order. He was indicted in 2003 and convicted of federal corruption charges relating to conduct while he was Illinois Secretary of State. He served nearly six years in prison and was released in 2013. Age 84, Ryan still travels extensively to speak about the death penalty and the criminal justice system, as well as to support humanitarian efforts in Cuba. Maurice Possley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of three non-fiction books. Ryan cited the reportage of Possley and his colleagues at the Chicago Tribune when he declared the moratorium and emptied death row. Possley is now senior researcher for the National Registry of Exonerations, a national database of more than 2,500 wrongful convictions maintained by the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law and University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society.
A fascinating and impressively informative read from beginning to end, [Until I Could be Sure] was written with the able assistance of Maurice Possley and is unreservedly recommended for both community and college/university library Criminology collections and supplemental curriculum studies lists.
There’s a Greek word— peripeteia — that describes the moment Governor George Ryan realized everything he believed about the death penalty was wrong. Thirteen innocent men on Illinois’ death row had been exonerated and it might only be the beginning. Knowing he would stand alone, George Ryan faced a soul wrenching decision that would shock the nation. It’s a story of integrity and a choice made because he believed it was the right thing to do despite life changing odds. This book tells us why he chose the most difficult path. It should be placed on the shelf of every politician in America.— Bill Kurtis, Documentary Producer and Television AnchorGeorge Ryan’s courageous act made our dreams reality. It was, in my view, one of the single most impactful events in propelling the abolition movement forward, making possible the successes we've seen ever since.— Mike Farrell, best known as 'BJ Hunnicutt' of television's legendary "M*A*S*H", President of Dealth Penalty Focus, Author of “Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist” and “Of Mule and Man”This book is the compelling, personal and highly evocative story of a man who finds himself confronting a long-held belief – that the death penalty was a necessary part of the criminal justice system – and finding that belief shattered by the facts. After seeing wrongful conviction after wrongful conviction, Governor Ryan found himself unable to sign his name to any more death warrants. He first imposed a moratorium on executions, then pardoned four innocent men on death row and commuted the rest of those on death row to life sentences. Many accused Governor Ryan of doing this to “cover” his so-called corruption. Nothing could be further from the truth – taking these actions were much more likely to inflame those in law enforcement than distract them from prosecuting him. George Ryan’s transformation from death penalty supporter to death penalty opponent is fascinating, instructive and ultimately inspiring. — Andrea D. Lyon, Professor Emeritus, Valparaiso University Law School, principal at Lyon LawIllinois Governor George Ryan’s decision to commute the sentences of all Illinois death row inmates will go down in history as an act that shifted the momentum of the death penalty debate in the United States. In Until I Could be Sure, he presents us with a rare glimpse inside his journey from being an ardent supporter of the death penalty to becoming one its most powerful critics. The story is both a personal one and a story reflecting America’s rapidly changing views about capital punishment.— Lawrence C. Marshall, professor, Stanford Law School
This book is not only about the death penalty. It is a chronicle that teaches us about integrity, leadership, growth, and the struggle to do the right thing. Those who care to listen will be touched by the lessons from Governor Ryan’s journey for decades to come. He leads us on.— Michael L. Radelet, University of ColoradoIllinois put innocence on the map and that is still the most influential issue for many people when it comes to the death penalty.— Richard Dieter, former Executive Director, Death Penalty Information CenterUnder Governor George Ryan's leadership, Illinois consolidated the forces that diminished the death penalty’s use, emboldening the abolition of the death penalty in other states, other governors' moratoria on executions, and prosecutors' decisions across the country to stop using the punishment.— James Liebman, Professor, Columbia Law School, Author of "The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution"Governor Ryan had a great impact during the time between when he declared the moratorium and when he announced the commutations and pardons. The fact that he was a Republican and former supporter of the death penalty and that his mind was changed by seeing that many people sentenced to death were innocent made it impossible to dismiss him. The impact that he had on the media, officials, and the public was substantial. I assign students in my class each year to read his statement, “I Must Act,” announcing the commutations and pardons. It was a truly historic moment in the history of the death penalty in the U.S.— Stephen Bright, Director, Southern Center for Human Rights 1982-2005, President 2006-2017, Lecturer, Yale Law SchoolLost faith in our justice system? Cynical about politicians who only purse their self-interest? Read this inspiring book. It’s a gripping story about the events that led to the end of the death penalty in Illinois. But it’s more than about society’s ultimate punishment. It’s also a remarkable tale about how lawyers, investigators, journalists and even journalism students came together to free innocents on death row, and at the center of it all, a career politician who found his moral compass and acted boldly on it. The book reads like a novel yet has the virtue of being true.— David Protess, (ret.), Chicago Innocence Project
Although I am a liberal Democratic feminist and George Ryan is a Republican, we became friends based on his principles and values and his willingness to do what was right despite the consequences. The elimination of the death penalty was not popular in downstate Illinois, where he comes from. It also was not popular with his Republican colleagues. But despite the political ramifications, Governor Ryan did what was right once he understood the issues and saw the miscarriage of justice in so many cases. This book is an intimate view of the rationale behind his decision and into the character of the man who made that critically important decision.— Hedy Ratner, Founder, Co-President Emerita Consultant, Women's Business Development Center, ChicagoUntil I Could Be Sure is a compelling account of Illinois Governor George Ryan's historic conversion from death penalty proponent to death penalty opponent. His declaration of a moratorium on executions in 2000 was the first ever in the United States. His emptying of death row in 2003--the largest commutation of death row inmates in American history--was an act of moral courage born of conscience and conviction after thirteen condemned men were exonerated. — Dan K. Webb, Co-executive chairman, Winston & Strawn LLP, U.S. Attorney Northern District of Illinois 1981-1985.Until I Could Be Sure is a powerful memoir of how Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty, emptied the state's death row, and endorsed “innocence” reforms to fix a broken system. These landmark decisions by a conservative Republican at the beginning of the 21st century, when opposition to the death penalty was seen as a political third rail, were from the heart, based on the merits, and acts of moral courage. Ryan’s journey on these issues was one I hope more 21st century politicians emulate.— Barry Scheck, co-founder, The Innocence Project
From the foreword: Governor Ryan and Maurice Possley—who I knew as a top courthouse reporter during my eight years as a federal prosecutor—have told Governor Ryan’s remarkable story in the following pages, focusing on his dramatic journey confronting the death penalty. They have written a wonderfully lucid and compelling book.
7/17/22, WGN Radio Chicago: Maurice Possley talked with Rick Kogan about the book, out in paperback soon.