Term as governor
Ryan was elected Governor in 1998, defeating his opponent, Glenn Poshard, by a 51–47% margin. Ryan's running mate was first-term state representative Corinne Wood. Ryan outspent Poshard by a 4-to-1 margin. Poshard, a firm believer in campaign finance reform, placed limits on individual donations and refused to accept donations from corporate or special interests.
One of Ryan's pet projects as governor was an extensive repair of the Illinois Highway System called "Illinois FIRST". FIRST was an acronym for "Fund for Infrastructure, Roads, Schools, and Transit". Signed into law in May 1999, the law created a $6.3 billion package for use in school and transportation projects. With various matching funds programs, Illinois FIRST provided $2.2 billion for schools, $4.1 billion for public transportation, another $4.1 billion for roads, and $1.6 billion for other projects. He also improved Illinois's technology infrastructure, creating one of the first cabinet-level Offices of Technology in the country and bringing up Illinois's technology ranking in a national magazine from 48th out of the 50 states when he took office to 1st just two years later. Ryan committed record funding to education, including 51% of all new state revenues during his time in office, in addition to the billions spent through Illinois FIRST that built and improved schools and education infrastructure. In 1999, Ryan sparked controversy by becoming the first sitting U.S. Governor to meet with Cuban President Fidel Castro. Ryan's visit led to a $1 million donation of humanitarian aid, but drew criticism from anti-Castro groups. In 2000, Ryan served as a chair of the Midwestern Governors Association.
Ryan helped to renew the national debate on capital punishment when, as governor, he declared a moratorium on his state's death penalty in 2000. This decision was heavily influenced by lawsuits filed by exonerated prisoners who made false confessions as a result of police torture under the direction of a police commander named Jon Burge. "We have now freed more people than we have put to death under our system," he said. "There is a flaw in the system, without question, and it needs to be studied." At the time, Illinois had executed 12 people since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977, with one execution, that of Ripper Crew member Andrew Kokoraleis, occurring early during Ryan's term. Ryan refused to meet with religious leaders and others regarding "a stay of execution" in light of the impending 'moratorium' and other facts relative to the 'flawed' capital punishment system in Illinois; in fact, under Ryan's governorship, 13 people were released from jail after appealing their convictions based on new evidence. Ryan called for a commission to study the issue, while noting, "I still believe the death penalty is a proper response to heinous crimes ... But I believe that it has to be where we don't put innocent people to death."
The issue had garnered the attention of the public when a death row inmate, Anthony Porter, who had spent 15 years on death row, was within two days of being executed when his lawyers won a stay on the grounds that he may have been mentally disabled. He was ultimately exonerated with the help of a group of student journalists at Northwestern University who had uncovered evidence that was used to prove his innocence. In 1999, Porter was released, charges were subsequently dropped, and another person, Alstory Simon, confessed and pleaded guilty to the crime of which Porter had been erroneously convicted. Simon himself was later released after serving fifteen years for the crime, after it was proven that he, too, was wrongfully accused.
On January 11, 2003, just two days before leaving office, Ryan commuted (to "life" terms) the sentences of everyone on or waiting to be sent to Illinois' death row—a total of 167 convicts—due to his belief that the death penalty could not be administered fairly. He also pardoned four inmates, Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley and Leroy Orange (all of whom were interrogated by Burge and released), and Stanley Howard. However, Patterson is currently serving 30 years in prison after being arrested for drug trafficking he committed after his release from death row. Howard remains in prison for armed robbery. Ryan declared in his pardon speech that he would have freed Howard if only his attorney had filed a clemency petition; Ryan then strongly urged investigators to examine Howard's alleged robbery case, because it appeared to be as tainted as his murder conviction.
These were four of ten death row inmates known as the "Death Row 10," due to widely reported claims that the confessions that they had given in their respective cases had been coerced through torture. Ryan is not the first state governor to have granted blanket commutations to death row inmates during his final days in office. Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller also commuted the sentence of every death row inmate in that state as he left office after losing his 1970 bid for a third two-year term, as did New Mexico Governor Toney Anaya before he left office in 1986 and Ohio Governor Dick Celeste before he left office in 1990. Ryan won praise from death penalty opponents: as early as 2001, he received the Mario Cuomo Act of Courage Award from Death Penalty Focus, in 2003 the Rose Elizabeth Bird Commitment to Justice Award from the same organization, and in 2005 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. On the other side of the Atlantic, Robert Badinter, who had successfully introduced the bill abolishing the death penalty in France in 1981 praised the decision of George Ryan. Many conservatives, though, were opposed to the commutations, some questioning his motives, which came as a federal corruption investigation closed in on the governor and his closest political allies (see below). Conservative columnist Pat Buchanan called Ryan "pathetic", and suggested the governor was attempting to save his public image in hopes of avoiding prison himself. Buchanan noted "Ryan announced his decision to a wildly cheering crowd at the Northwestern University Law School. Families of the victims of the soon-to-be-reprieved killers were not invited."