Grover W. Thompson wasn’t sentenced to die in an Illinois prison, but he did anyway.
On Dec. 9, 1981, an all-white Jefferson County, Ill., jury sent Thompson away to serve 40 years for the attempted murder of Ida White, a 72-year-old white woman from Mount Vernon. Thompson was black.
He died in prison in 1996, less than halfway through a sentence for a crime he said he didn’t commit.
Years later, a notorious white serial killer named Timothy Krajcir confessed to being the man who tried to kill White. In interviews with two detectives, he confessed, offering the sort of detail likely known only to the murderer.
Why does this matter today?
Last month, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner was offered an opportunity to provide justice to a wrongly convicted man. Thompson’s family, with the help of the Illinois Innocence Project, had pushed for a posthumous pardon of his crime, based not just on Krajcir’s confession, but all sorts of other evidence, including the recantation of a primary witness.
In their book on Krajcir’s pursuit and arrest, “In Cold Pursuit,” former Carbondale police Lt. Paul Echols and Post-Dispatch reporter Christine Byers dedicate an entire chapter to Krajcir’s confession in the Thompson case, unraveling the evidence and witness statements.
“I feel sick about this thing, and knowing what I hear today, an innocent man may have gone to jail,” one of the key witnesses told them. No physical evidence linked Thompson to the crime. Krajcir’s confession was detailed and accurate, right down to the clothing he was wearing that matched witness descriptions.
None of this was enough for Rauner to dispense any measure of justice, even in a case where the wrongfully convicted man had already died. It’s disappointing, but, in today’s political world, not all that surprising.
The duty to pardon and commute, including in death penalty cases, is one of the most powerful tools at a governor’s disposal. Gov. Bob Holden, a Missouri Democrat, once told me such decisions were the most “monumental” ones he made. Gov. Matt Blunt, a Missouri Republican, called such life and death decisions incredibly “sobering.”
But many governors today, including Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri, a Democrat, and Rauner, a Republican, seem skittish about using their immense power even in cases when justice demands it. Last year at this time, Nixon granted nine pardons to nonviolent offenders who had already served their sentences and re-entered society. They were safe calls, some marijuana possession and theft, from people who had already proved they were unlikely to reoffend.
And there’s the key. Governors with ambition are afraid they will end up with a ”Willie Horton” on their hands — the former Massachusetts inmate who committed heinous crimes while on a furlough from prison. The controversy helped sink the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
So, maybe that is why Nixon had only used his power of commutation once during his two terms until last year, finding a handful of cases among the more than 2,400 requests for pardon on his desk to hand out. Maybe that is why Rauner won’t even honor the wishes of a dead man’s family, despite overwhelming evidence that he never should have been in prison.
What makes Rauner’s decision even worse is that it is shrouded in secrecy. In Illinois, and in Missouri, the pardon review process is done almost entirely in secret. This process has been criticized by the American Bar Association, which has studied clemency processes in many states and found that the lack of transparency contributes to fundamental unfairness in the application of death penalty cases.
The Thompson case wasn’t a death penalty case, but the same criticism applies. Why shouldn’t the Illinois Prison Review Board have to show its work? Why shouldn’t Rauner have to provide an explanation when applying the most awesome power a governor has?
In this case, as has been the case for the past eight years in Missouri, the governor chose to keep his power tucked away neatly in his desk, choosing complacency over justice, fear over risk, letting one more dead black man unjustly killed by a sometimes broken judicial system roll over in his grave.
The losers here aren’t just one family seeking to clear their deceased relative’s name. The losers are the Illinois residents who need faith that their final check against the abuse of judicial power will be taken seriously by the state’s chief executive.
From City Hall to the Capitol, metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.