Ryan's Courage. (Comment)

By Shapiro, Bruce | The Nation, February 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

Ryan's Courage. (Comment)


Shapiro, Bruce, The Nation


"Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error," Illinois Governor George Ryan said on January 11, clearing his state's death row as his final act of office. Other executive orders, like Harry Truman's integration of the military, have been more sweeping, and a few, like President Ford's pre-emptive pardon of Richard Nixon, even more controversial. But never has a governor or President been so visibly moved to action by systemic failure in the criminal justice system, and never before has capital punishment been thrust so squarely into the spotlight by a single politician.

What Ryan has done, first, is to save 167 lives and probably many more. His commutation of those death sentences to a maximum of life in prison makes any future execution in Illinois--formerly site of one of the nation's largest death rows--at best a distant prospect. Ryan's successor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, is trying to play both sides of the issue, claiming to favor keeping the moratorium on executions while reforming the state's capital justice system. But if Illinois juries start handing out new death sentences tomorrow, even a single execution is years away--the average time span from sentence to execution in Illinois has been thirteen years. By then, it's conceivable that Illinois or the nation will have abandoned capital punishment entirely.

The significance of this moment rests not just with the commutations but in Ryan's journey. This conservative Republican pharmacist-turned-pol has recounted how the exoneration of mentally retarded death-row inmate Anthony Porter--falsely accused of a double murder and saved only by the investigative efforts of college students--began the nagging doubt in his mind. Less obvious, perhaps, is the role prosecutors and pro-capital punishment legislators played in his decision. After the Porter case, Ryan named a blue-ribbon commission, which proposed reforms in Illinois capital laws, and Ryan went to his legislature three times asking for a narrowing of the death penalty. But the legislators were unwilling to modify a system under which seventeen death-row defendants were falsely convicted and more than thirty were represented by disbarred or suspended lawyers.

Just how much of this is tied up in Ryan's own legal and political troubles is a matter for conjecture. Though Ryan is surrounded by a corrupt administration and faces possible indictment himself in a license-peddling scandal, anyone who speaks with him finds little evidence that his stand on the death penalty is anything but sincere. …

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