CHICAGO — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ordered a lower court to again look at former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's bid to overturn his corruption convictions, offering the imprisoned Republican a chance, however slim, at a new trial.
The decision marks one of the few significant rulings that have gone in Ryan's favor since he was convicted of accepting vacations, gifts and cash for steering state business to insiders. When told of the ruling, the 78-year-old former governor sounded pleased, said Jim Thompson, one of Ryan's attorneys.
"He was very gratified ... I could hear it in his voice," Thompson, himself a former Illinois governor, told The Associated Press. "This is his first legal victory since proceedings against him started more than six years ago."
The high court took issue with how the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reached its decision to reject his appeal – but it stopped well short of overturning Ryan's convictions. Any new trial, if it happened, would solely focus on several fraud convictions, Thompson said.
Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago-based defense attorney unconnected to the Ryan case, said the 7th Circuit is renowned for its reluctance to overturn convictions. He said that may not bode well for Ryan.
"It seems like the Supreme Court did open the door ever so slightly for the appeals court decision to be reverse," he said. "It's another shot – but a long shot."
Ryan is serving the tail end of a 6 1/2-year sentence in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., on multiple convictions, which in addition to fraud included tax fraud and false statements to the FBI. His successor as governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, is also in prison for corruption; he began serving a 14-year term in March.
Even if Ryan wins a new trial, Thompson said, prosecutors may not have the stomach for another costly, time-consuming process and could agree to have Ryan resentenced on the convictions not in dispute. That could lead to his release on time served, he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago, Randall Samborn, declined to comment on the Supreme Court decision.
Both sides must now submit new filings to the 7th Circuit by the end of June, and oral arguments could take place in autumn, Thompson said. Another Ryan attorney, Albert Alschuler, said it would take time for legal issues to play out.
Regardless of those legal options, Ryan is due to be released in mid-2013 because of federal rules allowing inmates with good behavior to serve only 80 percent of their sentences.
The federal appeals court rejected Ryan's appeal last year shortly after the death of his wife of 55 years, Lura Lynn Ryan. The former governor was released for several hours to be at his wife's side before she died, though he wasn't allowed to attend her funeral.
The main legal question at issue is whether Ryan waived any objections during his trial to supposedly faulty jury instructions.
In upholding Ryan's convictions, the appeals court last year concluded that defense attorneys did not make a timely objection to jury instructions about "honest services" laws and, even if they had, Ryan's conviction would not have been affected.
Defense lawyers have long criticized honest services laws as too vague and a last resort of prosecutors in corruption cases that lack the evidence to prove money is changing hands – and the Supreme Court largely agreed in a ruling in 2010.
The high-court ruling sharply curtailed "honest services" laws, with the justices saying such laws must be applied to clear instances of bribery or kickbacks. Ryan's appeal last year was one of several attempts to overturn his convictions based on that ruling.
During Ryan's appeal a year ago, government prosecutors said they did not think Ryan had defaulted on his chance to bring up the Supreme Court's "honest services" decision. But the appellate judges in Chicago disregarded prosecutors on that point.
In a separate case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April that appellate courts could sometimes ignore prosecutors' view. In Ryan's case, however, the high court justices said the 7th Circuit should look at that issue anew.
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Holland reported from Washington, D.C.