The life of Jim Ryan

He was a tough-as-nails-prosecutor who rose to become a two-term Illinois Attorney General. 

But despite his success at the ballot box, he was not a natural politician. He hated the glad-handing part of retail politics. When reporters interviewed him, he was often stiff and uncomfortable. 

But more significantly, Jim Ryan suffered from the hubris of not wanting to admit a mistake. 

His life was filled with so much woe that shortly after his June 12 death his own family issued a press release comparing him to the Biblical character Job.

He lost a 12-year-old daughter, Anne, to an undiagnosed brain tumor in 1997. His 24-year-old son Patrick killed himself in 2007. His wife suffered from heart disease. And Ryan himself battled multiple bouts of Type 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"From the time I met him until his death, Jimmy always was striving to do the right thing and to help people," his wife of 54 years, Marie, said in a prepared statement. "That was who he was and he was very successful at it."

When I read those words, I just cringed. He didn’t always strive to do the right thing. 

The Jim Ryan I knew sent two innocent men to death row. 

And even when evidence began piling up that a mistake had been made, he just ignored it. The men’s names were Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez. They were convicted in the 1983 abduction and killing of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. 

The two men initially were convicted and sentenced to death, but after several appeals and two retrials each, both were exonerated and another man ultimately was convicted of the girl's slaying.

John Hanlon, a Springfield lawyer who represented Cruz and Hernandez, recalls travelling to Wheaton to meet with Ryan in 1995.

“I thought there was evidence that the two were wrongly convicted. I suggested that we try to do this new thing called DNA testing to see if it would match them to the crime. But he wasn’t interested and he refused to go along with it. If he had agreed to it, this case would have been resolved years earlier than it ultimately was.”

That wasn’t the action of someone driven by a desire for truth – or justice. Nor was it as his widow claims a desire to “do the right thing.” He was blinded by the arrogance of power. 

It was the biggest case of his career and he protected that conviction and used it as a foundation to build a political career. As he sought higher office, two innocent men languished on death row for a crime they had nothing to do with.

I last spoke to Ryan in 2002 when he dropped by my office to chat and discuss his run for governor. Even then, he was unwilling to admit he made a mistake. And after more than a dozen men on Illinois’ death row had been found to have been factually innocent, he still clung to the idea that society should be able to kill its own citizens. 

That arrogance of not admitting a mistake may well have cost him a chance to be governor. 

In 2002, he was the Republican nominee for governor facing Rod Blagojevich. The Chicago Tribune relentlessly criticized his handling of the Nicarico case.

“They said being governor is all about judgement,” lawyer Hanlon said. “And if his judgement was this poor in the biggest case of his career, how good would it be as governor?”

Ultimately, Blagojevich won the race. But his judgement didn’t prove too great either.

Suffering is the mother of empathy.

In the years following his return to the political wilderness, I often wondered about Ryan. Did he reflect on his mistakes and rethink his own political positions in the wake of his son’s death and his own declining health?

There is reason to think so. 

In 2010, he again made an unsuccessful bid for governor. But he failed to capture the Republican nomination. For the first time he apologized for his role in the wrongful prosecutions. He said he “acted in good faith and still came up with the wrong result.” He added, “The system and I failed to achieve a just outcome.” 

I doubt those words provided much solace to either Cruz or Hernandez after spending years on death row. But at least he said them.

His spirted defense of capital punishment dimmed over the years as well. Ultimately, he said he had “grave concerns” about the institution. 

If even a hard as nails prosecutor can change his mind, perhaps there is hope for us all.

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for the Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].


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