PARK CITY, Utah – A year after commuting the sentences of 167 death row inmates, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan (search) appeared at the Sundance Film Festival (search) to promote a film that chronicles the unraveling of his state's capital justice system.
"Deadline," directed by Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson, follows the turbulent debate that erupted when Northwestern University journalism students showed that innocent men had been condemned to death row. Thirteen men were eventually found to have been wrongly convicted and Ryan declared a moratorium on capital punishment (search) in the state.
"The death penalty system and the laws of this country need to be fixed," Ryan said Sunday night at a launch party for the documentary in Park City.
"When we're talking about execution, if we can't have a perfect system — which I don't believe we can — then we shouldn't have a system like that in place," he said.
The Republican governor was criticized by prosecutors and victims-rights advocates for his decision to grant clemency to all death row inmates shortly before leaving office last year. But at a screening of the documentary Friday in Salt Lake City, Ryan said he was more confident than ever he did the right thing.
The movie's premiere came less than a month after Ryan, 69, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of taking payoffs, gifts and vacations in return for letting associates profit from Illinois contracts and leases.
The racketeering charges stemmed from a six-year corruption investigation into Ryan's tenure as Illinois' secretary of state and later governor. He left the governor's office after one term.
On Friday, a federal judge set Ryan's trial for March 2005. Ryan has pleaded innocent, and declined to comment on the indictment Sunday.
Ryan, his wife and three former death row inmates attended the launch party for the film, a contender in the Park City festival's documentary competition.
Shot during the last three months of Ryan's term, the film mixes interviews with Ryan and other figures in the legal debate with archival footage.
Death row inmates interviewed in the documentary include Gabriel Solache, a Mexican national who speaks no English, yet was convicted of murder and kidnapping based on an alleged English-language confession; Robbie Jones, who was the youngest man on death row at 19; and Grayland Johnson, who claimed to have been tortured into a false confession. Ryan commuted the sentences of all three to life in prison without parole.
Last year the Legislature overhauled the state's death penalty system to reduce the risk of executing an innocent person. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has kept in place the moratorium Ryan started, saying he wants to see how the reforms work.