June 24, 2022

Opinion

Remembering Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan

He was a tough-as-nails-prosecutor who rose to become a two-term Illinois Attorney General.

Despite his success at the ballot box, he was not a natural politician. He hated the glad-handing part of retail politics. When reporters interviewed him, he was often stiff and uncomfortable.

Jim Ryan also suffered from the hubris of not wanting to admit a mistake.

His life was filled with so much woe that shortly after his June 12 death his own family issued a news release comparing him to the Biblical character Job.

He lost a 12-year-old daughter, Anne, to an undiagnosed brain tumor in 1997. His 24-year-old son Patrick killed himself in 2007. His wife suffered from heart disease. And Ryan himself battled Type 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“From the time I met him until his death, Jimmy always was striving to do the right thing and to help people,” Marie, his wife of 54 years, said. “That was who he was and he was very successful at it.”

When I read those words, I cringed. He didn’t always strive to do the right thing.

The Jim Ryan I knew sent two innocent men to death row. And when evidence piled up that a mistake had been made, he ignored it. The men’s names were Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez. They were convicted in the 1983 abduction and killing of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico.

The two men were convicted and sentenced to death, but after several appeals and two retrials each, both were exonerated. Another man was convicted of the girl’s slaying.

John Hanlon, a Springfield lawyer who represented Cruz and Hernandez, recalls traveling to Wheaton to meet with Ryan in 1995.

“I thought there was evidence that the two were wrongly convicted. I suggested that we try to do this new thing called DNA testing to see if it would match them to the crime. But he wasn’t interested and he refused to go along with it. If he had agreed to it, this case would have been resolved years earlier than it ultimately was.”

That wasn’t the action of someone driven by a desire for truth – or justice. Nor was it as his widow claims a desire to “do the right thing.”

It was the biggest case of his career and he protected that conviction and used it as a foundation to build a political career. As he sought higher office, two innocent men languished on death row for a crime they didn’t commit.

I last spoke to Ryan in 2002 when he dropped by my office to chat about his run for governor. He was unwilling to admit he made a mistake. And after more than a dozen men on Illinois’ death row had been found to have been factually innocent, he clung to the idea society should be able to kill its own citizens.

That arrogance of not admitting a mistake may have cost him the governorship.

In 2002, he was the Republican nominee for governor facing Rod Blagojevich. The Chicago Tribune relentlessly criticized his handling of the Nicarico case.

“They said being governor is all about judgment,” lawyer Hanlon said. “And if his judgment was this poor in the biggest case of his career, how good would it be as governor?”

Blagojevich won the race. But his judgment didn’t prove too great either.

Suffering is the mother of empathy.

I often wondered about Ryan. Did he reflect on his mistakes and rethink his political positions in the wake of his son’s death and his own declining health? There is reason to think so.

In 2010, he again made an unsuccessful bid for governor. He lost the Republican primary. For the first time he apologized for his role in the wrongful prosecutions. He said he “acted in good faith and still came up with the wrong result.”

I doubt those words provided much solace to Cruz and Hernandez, but he said them.

His spirited defense of capital punishment dimmed over the years. He said he had “grave concerns” about the institution.

If a hard as nails prosecutor can change his mind, perhaps there is hope for us all.

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for the Illinois Times, can be reached at sreeder@illinoistimes.org.

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at: sreeder@illinoistimes.com.