The Man Who Emptied Death Row: Governor George Ryan and the Politics of Crime

By Merriner, James L. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Fall/Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Man Who Emptied Death Row: Governor George Ryan and the Politics of Crime


Merriner, James L., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The Man Who Emptied Death Row: Governor George Ryan and the Politics of Crime. By John S. Jackson. (Southern Illinois University-Carbondale)

"Is this politics or is this a crime"? (158) This quote, taken from Prosecutor Patrick Collins's summation of the government's case against George Ryan, effectively captures the central question of the book. It is a question not entirely answered in any definitive way by the narrative of the book. Basically the book resembles a good legal thriller in that it provides a lively and interesting account of the case against George Ryan and his co-defendants. It also provides a good insight into the Ryan era and Illinois politics. The book attempts to get inside George Ryan's head and figure out why he did what the federal government convicted him of doing. There it encounters rougher going, and at the end the reader is left with no completely satisfactory answer to that most profound question. Given how smart and experienced Ryan was, given the many comparable Illinois politicians who had gone to jail before him; and given the many signs that the federal government could and likely would prosecute top Illinois politicians if they had grounds, how could Ryan not have seen the handwriting on the wall and changed the way his offices and underlings did business? At the end of the book that compelling question remains unsatisfactorily answered. Perhaps the answer is that there is no final accounting for human nature, and a deep understanding of an idiosyncratic personality like George Ryan is not possible with the methods of standard investigative reporting. Perhaps those teleological questions are ultimately unanswerable and unknowable outside the confines of philosophy and theology. Even with that most basic question hanging unanswered within the covers of this book, it is still an interesting and useful summary and review of the downfall of one of the leading recent figures in Illinois politics.

This book reads like a well-crafted morality play about the corrupting influences of money and power in politics. Indeed it uses at the end of the book the Illinois "culture of corruption" as an all-purpose answer to why anyone would do the things Ryan and his associates were convicted of, much less think they could get away with it. Maybe better than the ubiquitous "culture of corruption," the more relevant explanation is the potential for corruption inherent in all human nature. In other words, it may be an individual level explanation rather than a cultural explanation for this tale of original sin. People are ultimately responsible for their actions; culture is not.

However, it is important to add to the balance the counterweight on the other side of the equation. George Ryan did a lot of things right in Illinois politics. He was an effective governor; he passed a $12 billion capital bill to build infrastructure, which will serve the people long after he is gone. Ryan made compromises and deals with other strong leaders and kept the process of government, especially the legislative process moving along. And it moved generally in a direction that was good for the State of Illinois in many respects. Compared to the stalemate and government-by-outsizedego seen in Blagovich-era, Illinois politics, there is much to recommend the Ryan years and much to recommend at least the legal part of the traditional political process in Illinois. …

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