IMAGES: George Ryan
Charles Rex Arbogast  /  AP
Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan leaves federal court in Chicago after his conviction of racketeering and fraud charges in this April 17 file photo.
updated 9/6/2006 6:02:34 PM ET 2006-09-06T22:02:34

Former Gov. George Ryan, who was acclaimed by capital punishment foes for suspending executions in Illinois and emptying out death row, was sentenced Wednesday to 6 1/2 years behind bars in a corruption scandal that ruined his political career.

"People of this state expected better, and I let them down," the 72-year-old Ryan said in court before hearing his sentence.

Federal prosecutors had asked for eight to 10 years in prison. Defense attorneys argued that even 2 1/2 years would deprive Ryan of the last healthy years of his life.

"Government leaders have an obligation to stand as the example. Mr. Ryan failed to meet that standard," U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer said.

Ryan was convicted in April of racketeering conspiracy, fraud and other offenses for taking payoffs from political insiders in exchange for state business while he was Illinois secretary of state from 1991 to 1999 and governor for four years after that. The verdict capped Illinois' biggest political corruption trial in decades.

Prosecutors said that Ryan doled out big-money contracts and leases to his longtime friend, businessman-lobbyist Larry Warner, and other insiders and in received such things as Caribbean vacations and a golf bag in return. Ryan also used state money and state workers for his campaigns, the government alleged.

Defense lawyers ask for mercy
Defense attorneys pleaded for mercy, citing Ryan's advanced age, his health problems — he is plagued by high cholesterol and the intestinal illnesses Crohn's disease and diverticulitis — and the humiliation he has already suffered.

"The public shaming that Ryan has endured combined with the impending loss of his pension greatly lessens the need for the court to punish through the sentencing process," Ryan's lawyers said in court papers. They said Ryan "has been publicly and universally humiliated."

The scandal that led to Ryan's downfall began over a decade ago with a fiery van crash in Wisconsin that killed six children. The 1994 wreck exposed a scheme inside the Illinois secretary of state's office in which truck drivers obtained licenses for bribes.

The probe expanded to other corruption under Ryan. Seventy-nine former state officials, lobbyists, truck drivers and others have been charged. Seventy-five have been convicted, including Ryan's longtime top aide, Scott Fawell, a star witness at Ryan's trial.

Declared moratorium on executions
In 2000, Ryan, as governor, declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois after 13 death row inmates were found to have been wrongly convicted. Then, days before he left office in 2003, he emptied out death row, commuting the sentences of all 167 inmates to life in prison. He declared that the state's criminal justice system was "haunted by the demon of error."

Even as he faced scandal back home, Ryan accepted speaking invitations across the U.S. and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his criticism of the death penalty.

With prosecutors closing in on him, Ryan decided not to run for re-election in 2002. He was indicted after leaving office.

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