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PARK CITY, UTAH (AP) -- A year after commuting the sentences of 167 inmates on Illinois' death row, former Gov. George Ryan was at the Sundance Film Festival 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, a Republican and supporter of the death penalty, declared a moratorium on capital punishment in the state.
Ryan 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 accused by a federal grand jury of taking payoffs, gifts and vacations in return for letting associates profit from state 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 decided against running for re-election and left office after a single term in early 2003.
On Friday, a federal judge set Ryan's trial for March 2005. Ryan has pleaded innocent.
Ryan, his wife and three former death row inmates attended a launch party Sunday night for the film, a contender in the Park City festival's documentary competition.
"It delivers a message, if nothing else, that we need to rethink our approach to issues of life and death in society," said Lawrence Hayes, a death-row inmate who was spared by the 1972 Supreme Court decision that suspended capital punishment. Hayes was paroled in 1991, two decades after his conviction for "acting in concert" at a murder scene of a policeman.
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.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)