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The Junior Senator from Illinois

January 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Roland Burris, Governor Blagojevich’s choice to replace Barack Obama as the junior senator from Illinois, has been much in the news this week. (See for instance this article in today’s NYT and Gail Collins’ light-hearted column in tomorrow’s NYT.) As we prepare to welcome him to the Senate, I would recommend reading this column by Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune last week. (Hat tip: von.) It’s actually a reprint of his column from March 3, 1998.

You may recall that Blagojevich’s predecessor as governor of Illinois, George Ryan, was in the national news just before he left office in January 2003 for commuting to life terms the sentences of everyone then on Illinois’ death row — some 167 convicts — because he believed the death penalty could not be administered fairly. One of the cases on his mind was that of Rolando Cruz, whose conviction for murder had been reversed in 1995 because of recanted testimony, the DNA evidence, and the lack of any substantiated evidence against Cruz. Governor Ryan pardoned him in 2002.

Why did Cruz have to wait until 1995 to be acquitted? Well, as Zorn explains in his column, part of the problem was the unwillingness of the state attorney general to take action in 1992. And who was the state attorney general in 1992? Yes, Roland Burris. Here’s a portion of Zorn’s column:

On Valentine’s Day 1992, Mary Brigid Kenney, the assistant attorney general whom Burris had assigned to fight the appeal of Death Row inmate Rolando Cruz, sent Burris a memo identifying numerous errors in the investigation and trial that had put Cruz on Death Row for the 1983 murder of 11-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in DuPage County.

The memo concluded, “I cannot, in good conscience, allow my name to appear on a brief asking . . . to affirm this conviction.” Rather than re-examining the case, Burris took Kenney off it.

She then resigned with a stinging letter to Burris. “I was being asked to help execute an innocent man,” she told him. “Unfortunately, you have seen fit to ignore the evidence in this case.”

The evidence he ignored included apparent “perjured testimony” and “fraudulent investigations by local officials,” to use Burris’ words from last Thursday.

The context for Zorn’s 1998 column was the race then taking place for governor, Burris being one of the candidates. Zorn concludes, “So when he speaks today of the experience in office that makes him qualified to be our governor, I can’t help but imagine him sitting at a desk in 1992 behind a little sign that reads: ‘Stopping the buck is not my job.'”

As for George Ryan, he of course is now in jail.

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