2003 Visit: Death Row No More

January 15, 2003 10:00:00 PM PST
ABC 7's Ben Bradley was the first reporter to visit death row since Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted sentences in the condemned unit.

Death row is a place that has been traditionally void of much hope. A place where people go to die. But all that changed late last week.

"I am commuting the death sentences to life in prison without parole," Governor George Ryan said Saturday. When George Ryan offered clemency to the state's condemned, he breathed new life and new hope into death row.

"The reaction from many of the guys on death row was... 'You're going home! You're going home!'" Ronald Kliner, convicted killer, said. Kliner thought his name would be on the list of those pardoned. Kliner has been on death row since 1996, convicted of being the hired gunman of a childhood friend and killing that man's wife in 1988 in Palatine Township.

"I was in the cell next to Aaron Patterson when he left his cell. I had tears in my eyes. I grabbed his jumpsuit and pulled him back to the bars and I said, 'Aaron, don't forget me! You know that I'm innocent,'" Kliner said. He is convinced DNA evidence will vindicate him. He views the commutation as one more step in his long journey to freedom.

Kliner and many of the state's remaining 156 former death row inmates are already enjoying some of the perks of no longer being condemned. Kliner and fellow inmate Ronald Kitchen are walking without handcuffs. Over the next month, most of those housed in the state's condemned units will be transferred into general population at other maximum security prisons. They'll no longer have to spend 23 hours a day alone in a single prison cell by themselves.

However, having a roommate and being with the masses concerns some inmates.

"You got guys out there with attitude. You can live and you can die in the penitentiary just as easy as you can out there on the streets. It's not a piece of cake in here," said Ronald Kitchen, convicted killer.

Kitchen also proclaims his innocence. He was convicted of killing two women and their three children in a Southwest Side apartment in 1988. The home was set on fire after the murders.

"I don't think any innocent man or woman who is in a situation like this is going to just lay down and die. You got to give them a fight," Kitchen said.