St. George and the Death-Penalty Dragon Deadline' Ennobles a Corrupt Politician to Score Points against Capital Punishment

By Cox, Ted | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), July 30, 2004 | Go to article overview

St. George and the Death-Penalty Dragon Deadline' Ennobles a Corrupt Politician to Score Points against Capital Punishment


Cox, Ted, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Ted Cox Daily Herald TV/Radio Columnist

The state has no right to take a life. The government can, indeed must, mete out punishment and lock up those who are a danger to themselves and to others. In some cases, it is quite justified to take the key and cast it into a cornfield. Yet the state has no justification to say this or that person may no longer exist.

The victim of a rape, the survivor of a shooting, the family of someone murdered may well believe the perpetrator deserves the same if not worse. Yet the state has to be better than that, above that, more rational than that, for the same reason it balances its own powers and demands that 12 jurors agree unanimously on a criminal's guilt. If murder is wrong, and we're all agreed on that, what gives the state the right to kill anyone?

Now that we've cleared that up, we're free to take on the death- penalty documentary "Deadline" without bias, on its own terms. An independent sensation at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson's movie focusing on Illinois' struggles over capital punishment comes to TV on "Dateline NBC" at 7 p.m. today on WMAQ Channel 5.

It's an undeniably powerful, affecting piece of work, recommended if only to get a viewer thinking about the ramifications of the death penalty. Yet it suffers badly from a blinders-on approach where former Gov. George Ryan is concerned. To separate Ryan's 11th-hour death-row deliberations from his career as a party hack, a blustery bully and a corrupt politician sitting on an ill-gotten war chest might serve the death-penalty debate well, but at the cost of present-day justice and historical accuracy.

"Deadline" goes off on tangents on the history of the death penalty and its application, but it uses Ryan's internal debate over capital punishment, late in 2002, as the story thread that knits it all together.

Prodded by the overturn of more than a dozen death-row convictions, largely achieved through the work of Northwestern University's David Protess and Larry Marshall, Ryan had to face that Illinois' system of justice was broken - at very least where the death penalty was concerned.

Pointing to how the state had executed a dozen persons since capital punishment had been reinstated in the '70s, while 13 death- row inmates had been exonerated, Ryan said, "It's like flipping a coin" - that is, a 50-50 game of chance with someone's life at stake.

Yet "Deadline" ignores that at the time Ryan was also in political disgrace. The January 2003 "deadline" he faced to reach a decision on capital punishment was of his own making, as he had declined to run for a second term as the cover-up of major scandal surrounding him began to unravel. …

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