It started 15 years ago this week, and even now every sweet memory of that brief romance is emblazoned in Tim Barton's memory -- and in the annotated keepsake calendar that helps him recall.

He remembers meeting Dawn Dudovick on Jan. 9, 1988 -- her tiny frame and mane of dark curls and the red-and-white USC sweatshirt she wore to the church singles mixer. He remembers their volleyball game a few weeks later, the barbecue after that, giving her a rose at a Chinese restaurant, the comedy club they went to in Chicago. He remembers their first kiss in mid-May, as they gazed at a starry sky in the Virgin Islands. And he remembers May 18, the day she was murdered, stabbed 39 times by an ex-convict who knocked on her door asking to borrow sugar.

Now Barton has added a new milestone to his collage of memories, but this one is less sweet. On Saturday, Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican who left office today, commuted the death sentences of every condemned prisoner on the state's death row, including the man convicted of Dudovick's murder.

Barton watched it on TV, shouting obscenities at Ryan's image on the screen. "I wish I'd been there so I could've cursed him out loud so much that they'd have had to drag me out of there in public, on TV," he said. "I wish I could've been there to call him a liar. I wish I could've called him a criminal."

The anger wells up in Barton, crests on his open face and recedes behind his boyish embarrassment. A born-again Christian, Barton is not easily given to foul language and displays of fury. But the anger is there all the same.

"When Ryan said that the only justification [for capital punishment] was revenge, I said, 'Well, yeah.' "

Ryan's decision, following months of soul-searching and public vacillation, came after he concluded the system was error-prone. In recent years, Illinois had executed 12 men on death row but exonerated 13 others. Still, Ryan's move -- the broadest clemency of death row prisoners ever -- has triggered a barrage of criticism from prosecutors and other public officials who favor capital punishment. Even some opponents of the death penalty, while publicly hailing a moral victory, take little satisfaction from the way the governor handled himself -- at first suggesting he would not grant a blanket clemency to all 167 death row inmates, then doing exactly that, converting all death sentences to life without parole, 48 hours before leaving office under the cloud of a corruption scandal.

Predictably, the outpouring of rage is most bitter from the friends and families of many of Illinois's murder victims. Many say Ryan has reopened old wounds, robbed them of justice, cheated the system. Few are prepared to believe that the judicial procedures that produced death sentences for scores of the state's most hardened criminals were so derelict that they deserve to be scorned by one man.

Ryan's successor, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat who was sworn in today, has criticized the blanket clemency. In news conferences, top prosecutors have slammed Ryan while acknowledging that the state's criminal justice system is ripe for an overhaul.

"In one stroke, the governor tossed aside the work of trial judges, juries and appellate judges," Cook County State's Attorney Richard A. Devine said in public remarks Sunday. "The system is now indeed broken. And he walks away. But the rest of us remain, and it is up to us to rebuild a criminal justice system that has been seriously undermined in just a few days."

Some officials, including prosecutors, have called for a full debate on the state's death penalty law. But for many of those close to the victims, no debate is warranted. Their views are fixed by the viciousness of a crime whose details are seared into memory. And their opinions are unclouded by thorny debates over deterrence, the cost of death row and the procedural problems of arranging fair trials and appeals.

"I have no sympathy for the guy" who murdered Dawn Dudovick, said her father, James Dudovick, of West Bend, Wis. "It was not an act of anything but rage and brutality -- that's the kind of person he is."

Dawn Dudovick's killer, William Peeples, was an anomaly: a black man with a violent criminal history living in Schaumburg, a mostly white, middle-class suburb of orderly housing estates, golf courses and parks northwest of Chicago. In 1983, he was convicted of the attempted rape of a 13-year-old girl he assaulted with a knife in her suburban home. After a prison term, he was arrested again for stabbing a man in the back.

On the afternoon Dawn Dudovick was murdered, Peeples had knocked on a number of doors in the two-story apartment complex called Apple Gate, where he had moved in with his girlfriend a few days earlier. There was testimony that he'd asked to borrow sugar. The neighbors peered through their peepholes and refused to let him in.

Then he tried Dudovick's door, right next to his. It is not clear whether they had met; she had just returned from a week in St. Thomas, the Caribbean island where she'd lived as a girl with her grandparents, who owned a hotel there.

It was about 5 p.m. when she opened the door, at least enough for him to push it in, police said. He tried to rape her, she struggled, and then he attacked her with a nine-inch butcher knife. Dudovick's roommate found the body. When the police tried to canvass the neighbors, Peeples refused to let them in. He set fire to his apartment in an attempt to destroy evidence, but police captured him as he tried to escape out the back window and recovered the knife.

Today, in the flat, featureless sprawl of Chicago's northwest suburbs, Barton toured the landmarks of his romance with Dudovick. Here is the church where they met. Here is the park where they sat on a bench and talked in low voices. Here is the tidy, landscaped apartment complex where she died.

He remembers their romance as short and perfect and unblemished by the complications that can develop over time.

When she was murdered, Dudovick was five weeks shy of her 24th birthday. She was a credit analyst for Unysis Corp., an apple-cheeked, athletic young woman who was getting ready to bring her new boyfriend home to meet her parents in Wisconsin over Memorial Day weekend.

Barton was 28, square-built and outgoing, a former college football player whose natural friendliness led him to a career selling heating and air conditioning systems. He was crazy about her; everything about their fresh romance seemed to hold promise.

He is certain that Peeples should die for this awful crime. "I can make the whole case biblically that [capital punishment] is justified," he said. "Of course, it's from the Old Testament."

Barton acknowledges that in his maximum-security prison, Peeples's life is not very pleasant. But it is, after all, a life, he said.

"He can survive and have some status or strive for some status in that community, and I don't even think he deserves that," he said. "He can read books. He can get an education. He can watch TV, I believe. He can send articles to the newspaper" -- as he did some years ago, in opposition to capital punishment. "Dawn Dudovick can't do any of that."

Still, Peeples, the murderer, seems somewhat abstract to Barton; he reserves most of his anger for Ryan, the politician. He wonders why Ryan didn't fix the system instead of slam-dunking it.

"In a case of murder, you feel helpless," he said. "And what George Ryan did -- from a constitutional point of view, playing God -- you feel helpless all over again."

Barton had a hard time after Dudovick's death. He took over a Bible class she was teaching at church. But he couldn't watch scenes of movies or TV shows that featured violent deaths. He'd walk out of the theater. After a while, he began dating again. But the relationships didn't work out. Once, as a joke, a girlfriend brandished a knife at him. He said it wasn't funny, and he told her why.

He remains single and safeguards his memories of Dudovick -- not only the grim clippings, but also the poetry and jotted notes and photographs -- in an album, though he's not entirely sure why. And he has added Ryan's letter about the blanket clemency, which arrived by FedEx just hours before the televised announcement Saturday.

Now he pores over the album, studying the old papers and pictures. And he comes across a card he wrote to her the day she was murdered, shortly before he found out the next day. He reads it aloud.

"I hope you stay a long while and leave many footprints upon my heart."

Tim Barton has kept a scrapbook of memories from his brief romance with Dawn Dudovick, who was killed in her home in Schaumburg, Ill., in 1988.