Gov. George Ryan announced the pardons to cheers from an audience of DePaul University law students who have worked to free wrongly condemned people.
"We nearly killed innocent people. We nearly injected them with a cocktail of lethal chemicals so they could die in front of witnesses," Ryan said. "How does that happen? I don't understand it."
The news of the pardons broke earlier when Ryan's office released an advance copy of his remarks. It was the first of two speeches scheduled for the last weekend of Ryan's term.
In the second address, on Saturday, he could announce commute death sentences to life terms for some of the more than 150 people on Illinois' death row.
Ryan pardoned Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley, Leroy Orange and Stanley Howard.
"Today, I am pardoning them of the crimes for which they were wrongfully prosecuted and sentenced to die," Ryan's text read. "I have reviewed these cases and I believe a manifest injustice has occurred. I have reviewed these cases and I believe these men are innocent. I still have some faith in the system that eventually these men would have received justice in our courts but the old adage is true: Justice delayed is justice denied."
Hobley's sister, Robin, burst into tears Friday morning as she read the advance copy.
"I've read so many horrible transcripts in the last 15 years, I can't believe what I'm reading," she said. "I'm speechless right now."
Of those pardoned Friday, all but Howard, who was convicted of a separate crime, were to be released from prison later in the day, Ryan said.
Ryan leaves office on Monday after a term marked both by his bold stand on the death penalty and a scandal from Ryan's term as secretary of state over the alleged provision of truck licenses to firms that made political donations, before be became governor. He did not seek reelection.
Looking back over his four years in office, Ryan said that when he became governor, "the death penalty was nowhere on the radar screen." But after only a year in power, Ryan declared a moratorium after 13 men were freed from Illinois' death row because new evidence exonerated them or there were flaws in the way they were convicted.
"The category of horrors was hard to believe," Ryan said. "If I hadn't reviewed the cases myself, I would have had a hard time believing them."
Ryan said the men he pardoned Friday were also "perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system":
- Hobley was convicted of murder and aggravated arson in the deaths of seven people, including his wife and infant son. Ryan said Hobley was a victim of "bagging" before his confession, in which police officers suffocated him with a plastic typewriter cover. In addition, Ryan said, the jury was led by a suburban police officer who put his gun on the table during deliberations.
- In Howard's case, Ryan said the witness who linked him to a shooting had been drinking heavily and only made a tentative identification six months after the killing. His guilt was contradicted by ballistics evidence, but he confessed after being tortured.
- Patterson was apparently also suffocated and beaten by police, and Ryan said Patterson used a paper clip to scratch messages into a wooden table in the interrogation room in which he said he was innocent and had been brutalized into confessing.
- Orange was sentenced to die for taking part in the stabbing of his former girlfriend, her 10-year-old son and two others. The conviction came despite Orange's description of torture and testimony that his half brother, Leonard Kidd, was the one who stabbed the victims. Kidd, also on death row, claims he too was tortured into confessing.
"It appears to me that the system has failed orange by relying on technicalities," Ryan said. While Orange will remain in jail, Ryan said the evidence in the kidnapping and robbery cases against him "is also troubling."
Ryan said he felt for the victims of the crimes, but called the families of the wrongly condemned "victims that no one ever talks about."
The governor avoided characterizing himself as a death penalty abolitionist, but said, "If we haven't got a system that works than we shouldn't have a system."
Ryan has said he will announce before he leaves office next Monday whether he will grant clemency to any or all the state's 160 death row inmates.
The most recent precedent for a blanket clemency came 16 years ago when the governor of New Mexico commuted the death sentences of the state's five death row inmates.