Death-row debate riles scribe

NEW YORK — Fed up with the media’s treatment of former Illinois governor George Ryan, screenwriter Abby Mann has set off on his latest crusade.

The Emmy and Oscar-winning scribe thinks that Oprah Winfrey and morning shows screwed Ryan, the Republican who recently commuted the sentences of 167 Death Row inmates because he thought the state’s judicial system was corrupt.

“Here is a black woman who hears that one police officer is responsible for torturing 60 people into false confessions,” says Mann about Winfrey, who he said dwelled too much on the victims’ families rather than on the failings of the courts.

“She doesn’t give a crap about it. It’s all about ratings.”

Now the scribe of “Judgement at Nuremberg” and “Indictment: The McMartin Case” is coming after Ryan’s foes with a strong left hook.

He’s writing a drama for Showtime about the governor’s controversial decision and its aftermath.

There is no set date for the drama as yet.

“I want people to realize what a wonderful man Governor Ryan is. He is an American hero,” says the 75-year-old Mann.

“Let’s not just show our American muscle and execute people who may be innocent. There’s so much racism and unfair conclusions.”

Mann had exclusive access to Ryan in the waning days of his administration, when the embattled pol was fighting off scandals that involved his previous job as Illinois secretary of state while fending off critics who oppose his moratorium on the death penalty.

“I watched his agony,” Mann says.

Early in January, Mann came across an article about the governor clearing 17 inmates of murder, citing their innocence.

Jumping on the story, he approached Showtime to do a project.

Though Ryan wouldn’t allow Mann access at first, he gave in after some lobbying from mutual friends and a video of “Judgement at Nuremberg.”

“It’s not an issue of money,” Ryan told Variety about his collaboration with Mann. “I just knew that it was a story, and if we could keep people off death row, we needed to get people behind us.”

Ryan’s opponents say his commutations deflect allegations of corruption. They also claim he did not have the authority to commute the sentences.

“In general, Ryan had a hard time with the local media,” says bestselling author and lawyer Scott Turow, who is writing a book about Ryan, as is Mann. Turow served with former Sen. Paul Simon and former FBI topper William Webster on a Ryan-appointed committee to reform the state’s judicial system.

Ryan has found some powerful defenders, but his media appearances didn’t do his cause much justice, says Mann.

“When (Today Show co-anchor) Matt Lauer asked Ryan what his legacy would be, it was totally outrageous. (Good Morning America’s) Diane Sawyer “was also hostile.”

Ryan is a little less vehement about his media workover. “I don’t think a lot of them understood that I didn’t let these people onto the streets,” he says. “They’re still in jail.”

Mann, ever the crusader, is determined to set the record straight.

“The same thing that happened to Martin Luther King is now happening to Ryan,” he says. “People treated MLK so badly, but he now has a holiday in his name.”

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