Governor Ryan's Capital Punishment Moratorium and the Executioners Confession: Views from the Governor's Mansion to Death Row

By Greene, Norman L.; Ryan, George H. et al. | St. John's Law Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Governor Ryan's Capital Punishment Moratorium and the Executioners Confession: Views from the Governor's Mansion to Death Row


Greene, Norman L., Ryan, George H., Cabana, Donald, Barnett, Martha, Davis, Evan, St. John's Law Review


My name is Norman Greene. I chair the Committee on Capital Punishment at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. We are sponsoring this program along with Ronald Tabak, who is the Chair of the Civil Rights Committee at the Association. This is a night of both joy and sadness. We are delighted that Governor Ryan, New York Daily News Columnist Jim Dwyer and American Bar Association President Martha Barnett are here with us. Unfortunately, one of our speakers, Donald Cabana, was ordered by his doctors to stay home due to his heart condition. Fortunately, Donald Cabana has prepared written remarks to be given after the conclusion of Governor Ryan's talk. The order of presentation will be as follows:

Governor Ryan will speak to us first, followed by Jim Dwyer. Mr. Dwyer is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who has recently published the groundbreaking work "Actual Innocence," with co-authors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld.1 He is also an author of two columns on Donald Cabana. Following Jim Dwyer's presentation, Martha Barnett, the President of the American Bar Association, will speak. Ms. Barnett is making the establishment of a national moratorium the principal goal of her tenure as ABA President. At the end of the program, Evan Davis, President of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, will make concluding remarks.

Due to his stand on declaring a moratorium in Illinois on executions, Governor Ryan has inspired the nation on one of the most important civil rights movements of our time: the steady movement away from capital punishment. In speaking about Governor Ryan and capital punishment today, I would like to stress two things about his proclamation of a moratorium in the State of Illinois: authenticity and risk. Why does the Governor speak with an authentic voice? And why do we listen to him so closely? It is because he has been in the trenches. He is like the war hero who comes back home after fighting the enemy-and then goes on to oppose the war. He knows what he is talking about. He has been the holder of the power of life and death; and he has voted in favor of life. Additionally, he has allowed death to happen.

He has held the clemency power, which Governor Pat Brown of California2 called "an awesome, ultimate power over the lives of others that no person or government should have or crave." In addition, former Ohio governor Michael DiSalle has called it "a temporary Godlike power."3

So where is the risk? Why is it risky to say, as Governor Ryan said: "Until I can be sure, with moral certainty, that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate?"4

Why is it risky for him to say that the state's taking of an innocent life is the "ultimate nightmare?" Should that be a risky thing to say-no execution of the innocent? No, that is one of the values that makes this country unique.

Why should it be risky to appoint a commission to provide a comprehensive study of capital punishment as Governor Ryan did? It should not be; but it is. At a time when people have said that favoring capital punishment over abolition is political suicide, Governor Ryan stuck to his values and held out for preserving life.

In an election year where many candidates for public office proclaimed that they favored capital punishment because it is known to be a deterrent to murder, he said: "No more. Stop." And at a time when the leader of his party has a record of numerous executions while he has been governor in his State of Texas, Governor Ryan still asserts: "Not in my state."

Judges have been rejected for confirmation or turned down by voters in judicial elections when they are viewed as opponents of capital punishment, or when they have simply reversed capital convictions. Although the history of capital punishment reflects the execution of the innocent or their near execution, the public opinion polls still say that a majority supports the death penalty. …

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