Ryan Did the Right Thing-Justice. (Editorials)

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Ryan Did the Right Thing-Justice. (Editorials)


While the president has the authority to send tens of thousands of men and women into battle, with potentially millions of lives in the balance, it is the nation's governors who deal most intimately with death on a day-to-day basis.

It is to the governors, whose experiences are more typically suited to building roads, filling potholes, and tending to parochial political concerns, that we entrust the power of the gas chamber, the electric chair and the syringe. It is a task few among us would relish. So the experience of former Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois is worth attention.

For some governors, applying the death penalty seems to cause no more concern than overseeing a new highway project.

In just six years, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush presided over more than 150 executions in his state, despite detailed evidence that the state's justice system, particularly regarding defense of those on death row, was deeply flawed.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton rushed home to Little Rock amid the 1992 New Hampshire primary to ensure that no last minute snafu would interfere with that state's execution of cop-killer Ricky Ray Rector, whose severe mental disabilities were no bar to his death.

Over the objection of religious leaders in his state, newly installed Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, his hand barely free of the Bible on which he swore his oath, rescinded that state's death penalty moratorium.

Then there are those--New York's Mario Cuomo most prominently--who refuse to sate the public cry for vengeance. Cuomo refused to allow the death penalty to be used in New York, and many believe he paid the ultimate political price for those convictions when he lost in 1994 to George Pataki, who campaigned heavily as an advocate of the death penalty. And now, we have the strange case of former Gov. Ryan.

By all accounts, Ryan ran a deeply flawed administration. At best, as Illinois secretary of state, Ryan was oblivious as his top aides, and state house lobbyists looted the treasury and traded their offices and access for private gain; at worst, though no charges have been brought against him, Ryan was a central player in the scandals--just another corrupt politician in a state that produces them with some regularity.

That said, a funny thing happened to the pharmacist-turned-governor. He came face-to-face with his state's "machinery of death." And he refused to blink.

As he was departing office earlier this month, Ryan commuted the death sentences of the 160 men and four women on Illinois' death row. Previously, following the revelation that 13 death row inmates were, in fact, innocent of the murders they were said to have committed, Ryan placed a moratorium on executions in the state. …

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