* The story…
Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan says Nelson Mandela was instrumental in his 2003 decision to empty death row. […]
Ryan and Mandela met in 2000 on a trade mission to South Africa.
Ryan said Sunday to hearty applause that Mandela called him ahead of his decision to empty death row and it inspired him. Ryan drew national attention for emptying death row, which led to Illinois abolishing the death penalty in 2011.
* The back story…
Back in 2000, staff members for then-Gov. Ryan tried to get a meeting with Mandela during the trip but were rebuffed, Ryan recalled.
“We were told that Nelson Mandela was a busy man and that he only met with heads of nations and world leaders,” Ryan told the mostly full church at 6430 S. Harvard in Englewood.
But then someone in the trade group had an epiphany. Ryan, who met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro the previous year, had maintained friendly enough relations with the communist dictator that his staffers were comfortable asking a favor of Castro, who was a close ally of Mandela’s.
“The staff I had called back to Cuba, to Fidel Castro, who had a long personal, affectionate relationship with Nelson Mandela over the years and asked if he could put in a good word,” Ryan said. “Don’t you know what happened? We had a meeting.”
* And then…
Several years later, after Ryan had imposed a moratorium on the executions in Illinois, Mandela called him while Ryan was contemplating commuting the sentences of inmates on Death Row.
“I hadn’t decided what my decision was going to be, and Nelson Mandela called me from South Africa and asked me to do what I [eventually] did and it had an impact on my actions,” Ryan said.