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Wednesday, June 14, 2006 02:21 am

Last right

Gov. Rod Blagojevich denied every prisoner’s petition in 2005 — except one

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By the time Thomas Alan Banning got lucky, it was almost too late. His life, laid unvarnished on a single sheet of paper in big letters and plenty of spaces, reads like a country song with a steady beat and little melody: A roll call of siblings, in which Tom was the fifth of 10. A roster of North End schools attended but never finished. A tour of duty in Vietnam spent hauling munitions to the front lines, followed by an honest living earned driving trucks and laying bricks. A few brief stints in prison. No wife, no kids. And always this central fact: “I have battled alcohol abuse and alcoholism my entire adult life,” Banning wrote. More than once, he tried to quit drinking, getting treatment through various veterans programs. “There were times he went to try to get off of it,” says his baby brother, Jeff Banning. “He’d sober up, but eventually he’d get back on.” Jeff and Tommy were closer to each other than any of their siblings, for reasons Jeff cannot begin to explain. “He’d just come over, pick me up and take me places, anywhere he went,” Jeff says. But even Jeff doesn’t try to put any sheen on Tommy. “He was always in trouble when he was younger. I don’t like to say that, but that was true,” Jeff says. Tommy got kicked out of so many schools, their dad gave him an ultimatum: Join the military or get out of the house. He grew into a tall, thin, handsome, and hard-headed man who never developed the desire to impress anyone. “Some people would take to him, some people didn’t. His attitude was ‘You either like me or you don’t,’ ” Jeff says with a shrug. He loved dogs, especially pit bulls, and had a favorite, named Rosco. Once, when a drinking buddy was hospitalized, Tommy decided that a visit from Rosco would cheer his friend up, so he sneaked the 105-pound chocolate pit into the hospital by pretending that Rosco was a Seeing Eye dog. “I just couldn’t believe he could pull that shit off, but he did,” Jeff says, with a hint of pride in his voice. Mainly Tom liked hanging out in bars. Alcohol had no adverse effect on his personality — “He would get friendlier as he got drunker,” Jeff says — but it ruined his driving record. It wasn’t just the DUIs; it was his habit of continuing to drive after his license was gone. In the fall of 2002, he helped a friend remodel his mother’s home. It was the kind of casual job that meant frequent breaks for beer. More beer was consumed while the men’s girlfriends cooked dinner. “I fell asleep watching TV, and when I awoke, my girlfriend was gone,” Banning later wrote in a petition to the Prisoner Review Board. “I decided to risk driving home and was stopped by law enforcement for driving with one headlight.” He pleaded guilty to driving drunk on a revoked license and got a five-year sentence. “This was the third time he went to prison,” Jeff says. “I guess they got tired of playing around with him.” During a routine medical exam on his admission to the East Moline Correctional Center in April 2004, Tommy was found to have hepatitis C, hypertension, emphysema, and liver enzymes at double and triple the normal levels. A year later, he learned that he had cirrhosis. In a letter describing Tommy’s condition, the prison doctor wrote: “I feel he would be lucky to last more than a year.” Last July — in a call timed to avoid “messing up my holiday,” Jeff says — Tommy asked his brother to find a lawyer to try to get him a medical release. Jeff dipped into a nest egg Tommy had inherited from a friend of his father’s and hired attorney David Harris. The petition Harris drafted didn’t claim that his client was innocent or cite any malfeasance on the part of the justice system; his plea was based purely on the fact that Tommy’s death was imminent. “I ask that I be released to die at home with my family. I promise to comply with any and all restrictions imposed,” Tommy wrote. Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed off on 487 petitions from prisoners in 2005. He denied all except one — and that was Tommy’s. It was like winning the lottery. He was released Dec. 8 and moved into Jeff’s mobile home. For a good month, he kept his promise to avoid alcohol. But then he told Jeff that he wanted one last hurrah. He started drinking again and spending the last of his money. When a buddy’s mom said her stove had broken down, he went out and bought her a new one. “That’s just the kind of person he was,” Jeff says. By May, Tommy was so swollen with fluids that he had to be admitted to the hospital, and Jeff grew fearful that his brother would die there: “I just told him, ‘Don’t do this to me in here. Let’s get outta here, OK?’ ”
Friday night, Tommy died in his sleep. He’ll be buried today at Camp Butler after a short memorial service — no special music, no religious ceremony. Jeff is following his brother’s final instructions: “He just told me to keep it simple.”
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