TAMMS — The tiny community in deep Southern Illinois that waged a full-press fundraising campaign and courtship with the state to earn its first "supermax" prison, was to become Illinois’s Death Row capital – the final destination for inmates sentenced to die and whose appeals had run out.
But with three sighs and a lick of his lips, according to The Associated Press reporter who witnessed the lethal injection that day, Andrew Kokoraleis on March 17, 1999, became the first person executed at the new facility in Tamms, and last person executed by the state of Illinois.
Former corrections' officials instrumental in the construction of the facility some 20 years ago said Tamms was chosen, in part, to house the state's execution chamber because of its remote location and distance from Chicago. Previous executions in northern Illinois had drawn scores of media and protesters and disrupted prison operations, they said.
The fact that the death chamber was used even once continues to weigh on former-Gov. George Ryan. When the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal, the final call for executing Kokoraleis rested with then-newly elected Ryan.
“He wouldn’t have died if I hadn’t of signed the order,” Ryan told The Southern Illinoisan earlier this month. “I was uncomfortable doing it, and not because I thought he was innocent. … If someone else had signed the order, I probably wouldn’t have felt too bad about it. Who am I to say the guy should die? … That’s an awesome responsibility.”
Early death penalty supporter
Prior to his rise to governor, Ryan not only the supported the death penalty, he spoke in favor of it on the Illinois House floor in 1977 as a state representative from Kankakee, and voted with the majority of his colleagues to reinstate the death penalty in Illinois after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted its ban on government executions in 1976.
But while Ryan was campaigning for governor, an inmate named Anthony Porter, of Chicago, was scheduled to die for a 1982 murder of two teenagers. Citing Porter’s IQ of 51, the man’s attorney won a temporary reprieve.
After that, journalism students, led by Professor David Protess at Northwestern University, went to work on his case.
The students, under Protess’ direction, unearthed evidence of a confession of the murder by another Chicago man, Alstory Simon, and Porter was freed after 18 years behind bars.
Ryan said he was troubled by the overturning of that conviction of a mentally disabled man in a string of actions taken that just barely saved his life from a wrongful execution by the state.
“I got to be governor, and a guy is sitting on Death Row for 15 or 20 years, only to be found innocent and turned loose,” Ryan said. “In America, I couldn’t understand how that could happen. How could someone sit on Death Row for 15 years and be innocent of a crime they were sitting there to die for?”
Emptying death row
As history unfolded, Ryan would go on to place a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois in January 2000, and three years later, in January 2003, on his way out of office in a cloud of controversy, commute the sentences of 167 men and women on Death Row to life in prison.
Tamm's claim as the state's only would-be death chamber faded away.
With his decision, Ryan became the darling of anti-death penalty advocates.
Governor behind bars
Upon his federal racketeering conviction in 2006, Ryan went on to serve more than five years in federal prison and seven months on home arrest for accepting cash and gifts for himself, friends and family in exchange for state contracts.
Alstory Simon, the man who was convicted of the double-homicide that freed Porter and set into motion a chain of actions leading up to the General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn abolishing the death penalty in January 2011, also was exonerated of the crime and freed in 2014.
Protess, the professor who fought to free Porter, left the prestigious journalism school at Northwestern amid controversy in 2011. And in February of this year, Simon filed a lawsuit against Protess and the school seeking $40 million, alleging the university allowed a “culture of lawlessness” among those students and others working to free inmates, leading to his wrongful conviction, according to court documents.
Execution still weighs on him
But before all that happened, Ryan would decide whether to give the green light to execute Kokoraleis at Tamms in the newly built execution chamber. The Republican governor had just been sworn into office after defeating downstate Democrat Glenn Poshard.
Ryan sought the council of trusted associates, and said he “made sure before we executed him there was no doubt in my mind about his guilt.”
Prosecutors said Kokoraleis and others who were part of a satanic “Ripper Crew” that killed and maimed as many as 18 women, cutting off parts of their breasts and eating some of the flesh as a sacrament of sorts.
Kokoraleis testified that, at one point, the box in which reputed leader Robin Gecht kept the severed parts contained as many as 15 breasts.
Ultimately, Kokoraleis was sentenced to death for kidnapping a 21-year-old Elmhurst woman at the real estate agency where she worked. As she was missing, her mother pleaded with the killers, according to published reports: "If the worst has happened, please let us bury her. Because if you don't, I'll find her anyway -- if I have to dig up all the ground in the state. And then I'll go looking for you."
She was found five months later in a cemetery.
Gecht is presently at Menard Correctional Center, in Chester, and scheduled to be released on parole in October 2042, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. He will be 88.
Kokoraleis’ brother, Tommy Kokoraleis, also convicted, is at the Illinois River Correctional Center, and is scheduled to be released on parole in September 2017. He will be 56. Another convicted gang member, Edward Spreitzer, is at Stateville Correctional Center serving a life sentence.
Ryan said, 16 years later -- in between doing what “old guys do,” which for him means yard work, house chores, writing a book, giving speeches, and spending some time with family -- he still thinks about the final decision he made to allow the execution of Kokoraleis.
This past year, Ryan told his hometown newspaper in Kankakee he “regretted killing that Greek fella,” according to a published report in The Daily Journal.
But Ryan, 81, told The Southern Illinoisan: “I really have no regrets about it, but it bothers me.”
Ryan called Kokoraleis a “terrible guy.” But, he said, what bothers him is “the fact that I put another man to death.”
Ryan: Look at corrections policies
Moving beyond the death penalty, Ryan said the public needs to take a long, hard look at its corrections policies, especially as it relates to the imprisonment of people who do not pose a direct public safety threat.
“Nobody gets rehabilitated in the federal prison system, and I don’t think in the state prison system,” he said, noting he’s working on a book that will include details of his time behind bars. “America incarcerates more people a year than any other country in the world.”
Of those whose convictions are overturned, he said, “We’ve still destroyed their lives and it shouldn’t be that way.”
Ryan said there should be reform as it relates to indigent defense, and, calling it “pretty arbitrary,” said focus should be placed on sentencing that can vary widely from county to county for similar crimes.
Ryan called it “inhumane” that he wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral of his longtime wife, Lura Lynn Ryan, who died in June 2011. Though courts denied his requests to spend time with his wife after she became very ill with cancer, the prison’s warden in Terre Haute where Ryan was housed allowed him four visits that year and he was at her side when she died.
“I tried to get home for the funeral and they refused,” Ryan said.
Ryan was preceded in prison by former Gov. Otto Kerner, convicted of bribery, and former Gov. Dan Walker, who was convicted related to private business activities. Walker died on April 29, and Kerner in 1976.
He was followed by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is serving out the remainder of a 14-year sentence at a federal prison in Colorado, convicted for attempting to sell President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat, among other crimes.
Ryan said he did not much care for Blagojevich as a politician, but thought his sentence was excessive.
“I haven’t figured out why they put Rod in jail for 14 years,” Ryan said. “That’s beyond me, but I’m sure there is a reason.”
Ryan blamed harsh sentences on “overzealous prosecutors.”
He stated a similar feeling about his own sentence, which also stemmed from the Operation Safe Road scandal. Prosecutors argued that Ryan, when he was Secretary of State, attempted to squash an investigation into staffers giving out driver’s licenses in exchange for bribes.
That scandal came to light as federal investigators probed a deadly Wisconsin crash involving a commercial truck that killed six children.
The criminal justice system, “It’s gone astray," Ryan said.