George Ryan Unfiltered: Former Illinois Governor Talks Prison and Praying for the Willis Children

The ex-politician gives his first media interview as a free man.

George Ryan, now officially free after his probation expired Wednesday morning, tells the Chicago Sun-Times he prays for the Willis children daily but feels no responsibility for their deaths.

The former Illinois governor was released from federal prison last July after serving five years for corruption in a case spurred by the 1994 highway crash that killed six children of Scott and Janet Willis. The tragedy dominated Ryan's trial as the truck driver who caused the accident had received a license through a bribe from a staffer in Ryan's office when he was Secretary of State.

"It was a terrible, heartbreaking thing to have happened to the Willis family," Ryan tells the Sun-Times' Michael Sneed. “As the parents of six children, my wife Lura Lynn and I could never comprehend the grief and heartache the Willis’s endured."

Says Ryan: "Lura Lynn and I put them in our daily prayers then and that continues to this day."

The 80-year-old Ryan, who's penning a memoir on his life behind bars, is now permitted to travel without giving 10-day notice and speak openly about the experience. The most trying time, he says, was being locked up while his wife, Lura Lynn, succumbed to cancer.

“I was told I could either be with her when she was dying . . . or attend her funeral. I couldn’t do both. When I visited her it was too late to bring her any comfort. I got to sit by her bed while she was dying, but she didn’t even know I was there," he reveals.

As governor, Ryan famously lifted the death penalty in Illinois and commuted sentences for hundreds of inmates on death row.

He says the start of his prison term was rocky because "some of the guards were angry" over his death penalty decision. "They made things a little rough, but you deal with it," he noted, recalling that he met "some real bums" but also "some real decent people" during his stint.

"I ended my life as an inmate last year. Now July 2nd, the end of my probation, has become my Independence Day," he says, adding: "Look, you can suffer and be miserable . . . but that is a choice. I chose not to do that."

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