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The Pardoning Governor

Former Gov. George Ryan was quietly issuing hundreds of pardons long before he decided to empty Illinois' death row last month, an Associated Press review of state records found.

Including the 167 death sentences he commuted days before he left office, the Republican granted 643 clemency requests during his four-year term - nearly twice as many as his predecessor granted in eight years.

Ryan's unprecedented decision to wipe out every death sentence, reducing most to life in prison, brought international attention to a state system where 17 people sent to death-row had been cleared since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.

Death penalty opponents celebrated the decision and nominated Ryan for the Nobel Peace Prize. Prosecutors and victims' families accused him of making a mockery of the justice system.

Yet while the spotlight shone on the death-row inmates, the lower-level pardons Ryan issued gained little notice. Records kept by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board show Ryan granted more than one in every three requests for clemency filed during his term.

While Ryan granted 643 requests over one term, his predecessor, former Gov. Jim Edgar, also a Republican, granted 347 during two terms.

"I didn't look at them and say, 'Let's outdo Jim Edgar,"' Ryan said. "I tried to use my best judgment based on the information that I had."

Beneficiaries of Ryan's pardon pen include some state workers, Republican officials and a former campaign aide to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, according to files kept by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. The majority, though, were ordinary people pleading to purge their records of minor offenses.

Many blamed their crimes on immaturity, drug addiction, an abusive childhood or falling in with the wrong crowd. Their offenses included credit card and insurance fraud, shoplifting, sexual abuse, battery and drug possession.

Peoria County State's Attorney Kevin Lyons objected to clemency for people convicted in his area, saying employers and others have the right to know about a person's criminal background.

"I think a synonym for pardon is sorry, and he is one sorry governor," Lyons said.

In some cases, the requests included letters of recommendation from state lawmakers, employers and ministers. But Ryan said the files he received from the Prisoner Review Board included only the board's summary and confidential recommendation - not the letters or petitions.

One of Ryan's pardons went to Donald W. Beachem Jr., son of a former Republican committeeman who served on an advisory panel under Ryan. He pleaded guilty to a criminal trespass charge in 1995.

"I am appealing to you, sir, to make me whole again, so that I may follow in my father's footsteps and be an exemplary example to others," Beachem wrote. Beachem, 26, did not return messages seeking comment.

John Butler, a former Cass County Republican Party chairman who has held several state jobs, said his party position "had nothing to do" with a pardon he received for felony burglary convictions in 1986.

Butler said he had changed his life by going to college and starting a family since his convictions at age 23. He currently faces sexual assault charges in a separate case.

Larry Benas, a former coordinator of Daley's west side political office, said in his petition that he was "young and impressionable" when, at age 18, he helped an older neighbor hold up a local store. Benas, who did not return calls for comment, pleaded guilty in 1973 to attempted robbery and received five years of probation.

The majority of Ryan's actions were pardons, including some in which he allowed the criminal records to be expunged. Clemency also can include a sentence reduction, the action Ryan took in the death penalty cases.

By Nicole Ziegler Dizon