CHICAGO, Ill. – The inmates on Illinois' death row may have a friend in Gov. George Ryan, but not for long.
Ryan, who leaves office in January, spearheaded an effort to review the state's death penalty cases. On Tuesday, the state Prison Review Board began an unprecedented slate of hearings from which it would recommend whether to commute the sentences of 142 of the state's 160 death row inmates.
The new hearings have victims' families in an uproar.
"They got their trials, they have had their appeals. It's time to put them to death," said Sam Evans, whose pregnant daughter, Debbie, and two grandchildren were murdered in November 1995 in suburban Chicago.
The three assailants in the Evans case repeatedly stabbed the 10- and 7-year-old children, then shot their mother to death. The killers, one of whom was the father of the fetus, then cut open Debbie Evans' stomach and kidnapped the full-term baby. The boy, now 6 years old, lives with Sam Evans.
The Evans family said Ryan's support for reviewing the two death penalty convictions in this case amounts to a slap in the face. They argue he should scrutinize specific cases instead of reviewing every death penalty conviction.
"Gov. Ryan is obviously as cold-hearted as the killers he is trying to commute their sentences," said Katy Salhani, Debbie Evans' sister. "He's trying to act as God and that's wrong."
But Ryan said he is just trying to do the right thing.
"There's nothing worse in my book than putting an innocent person to death," Ryan said.
The death penalty was re-instituted in Illinois in 1977. Since then, 12 people have been put to death, but 13 convictions have been overturned. Another death penalty inmate was hours away from execution more than three years ago when Ryan, who was just beginning his term as governor, put a stop to it.
Ryan freed Anthony Porter after another man confessed to the crime. Subsequently, the governor imposed a moratorium on executions and ordered a commission to study problems in the death penalty process.
The board has been advised to give each convict a one-hour hearing to review each case, and make recommendations to the governor on whether to commute their sentences.
Lake County State's Attorney Mike Waller has called the review board's task "almost impossible."
"It's hard to see how anything positive is going to come out of this process," he said. "If the governor grants clemency in many of these cases, law enforcement and family members are going to say that they didn't have a fair hearing. If he doesn't, I'm sure the defendants are going to say they didn't have a full and fair hearing."
Ryan has suggested he might grant blanket clemency unless flaws in the system are fixed.
"We have to make sure everyone on death row is guilty," he said.
On Monday, Ryan's office issed a statement expressing "deep sympathy for the surviving family members and friends of these heinous crimes."
But, it adds, "The system of capital punishment in Illinois is badly broken and deeply flawed and each of the petitioners was convicted under that broken and flawed system."
In any case, Ryan, who has chosen not to run again, has until January to rule upon the fate of those on death row.
Fox News' Jeff Goldblatt and the Associated Press contributed to this report.