01/30/2013 11:25 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2013

Welcome Home, Governor Ryan

On a frigid February evening in 1999, I called home to check my messages. "Gov. Ryan just called you," my teenage son Ben claimed. I laughed at the seemingly obvious prank. "No, Dad, it really was the governor. I recognized his voice. He wants you to call him at home."

What could this be about, I wondered? Perhaps the Anthony Porter case? Porter was a condemned inmate who had come within 50 hours of execution, only to be freed earlier that week when my journalism students and a private investigator uncovered proof of his innocence.

As it turned out, the Illinois Republican governor and his wife, Lura Lynn, had watched Porter's dramatic release on WGN-TV. The governor was stunned. "How does an innocent man sit on death row for 15 years...?" he asked his wife in disbelief.

When I returned Ryan's call, he had a more practical question: "What can I do to help that poor guy?"

I explained that a gubernatorial pardon would guarantee Porter restitution for his 17 years of wrongful incarceration. The governor promised to promptly take care of it.

The business part of our conversation concluded, the governor stayed on the line, musing about the case. He was horrified that Porter had almost been executed on his watch. "I would have been responsible for the death of an innocent man," Ryan whispered.

He went on to say that he had been staunchly in favor of the death penalty, even co-sponsoring Illinois' capital punishment law when he was a state legislator. And, he had opposed the growing calls for a moratorium on executions, despite several other high profile exonerations.

"But now, I'm not so sure," he said.

"Let's keep talking," I replied, and we agreed to meet.

The governor was true to his word. He helped Porter get state compensation in record time, and the three of us met to discuss the problem of innocents on death row. More gatherings followed with top Ryan staffers Dennis Culloton and Matt Bettenhausen, and with a blue ribbon commission appointed by the governor to reform capital punishment.

But a bombshell series by Chicago Tribune reporters Ken Armstrong and Steve Mills, "Death Row justice derailed," helped convince the governor that much more than reform was needed. In 2001, Ryan declared a moratorium on executions, and in 2003 he granted clemency to all Illinois death row inmates. By this time, Ryan's disdain for capital punishment was increasingly evident at public appearances and in private conversations.

Some cynics have suggested that Ryan's transformation was disingenuous, a pragmatic response to the sweeping federal corruption probe of his administration. Ryan, the theory went, wanted to bias the jury pool by challenging the death penalty.

Besides the lapse in logic -- capital punishment was wildly popular a decade ago - it is inconsistent with everything I observed and heard about Ryan. Tough as nails when it came to political infighting, the governor clearly had a soft spot for the underdog -- for victims of injustice like Anthony Porter. His stirring speech about clearing death row reflected his growing moral outrage about the power of the state to take a life.

But Ryan did more than derail the death penalty in his term as governor. Disregarding intense pressure from fellow Republicans, he vetoed legislation that would have restricted taxpayer-funded abortions for indigent women and restored Medicaid funding of safety net hospitals. He pushed through record appropriations for public school education and technology. And, he was the first sitting governor to travel to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro, opening the door to humanitarian aid and free trade. In many ways, he was Illinois' most progressive governor since Adlai Stevenson held the office in the 1950s.

Then, in 2006, the federal corruption probe finally snared Ryan. He was convicted of trading government services for campaign contributions and personal favors, and sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison. From afar, this struck me as little more than criminalizing politics -- using a draconian federal law (RICO) intended to prosecute mobsters to put another notch on the gun belt of an ambitious U.S. Attorney. To deter other elected officials? Ask Rod Blagojevich.

But away went Ryan, deprived of breathing free air again -- until today, when his son accompanied him on the drive from the federal prison in Terre Haute, IN. to a halfway house on Chicago's West Side, where he will reside briefly before returning to his home in Kankakee.

While Ryan was incarcerated, he endured the loss of Lura Linn, his high school sweetheart and wife of 55 years, and Thomas Ryan, his older brother. The former governor, who will turn 79 next month, is himself in declining health.

Many will say that his legacy will be the stain of scandal. Count me among the many others who say otherwise. George Ryan is a good man, a profile in courage who saved countless innocent lives.

It's time to ask a version of the question he posed the first night we spoke about a newly freed prisoner: What can we do to help you, Gov. Ryan?