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Ryan did the right thing -- justice

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 Robert Ehrlich, his hand barely free of the Bible on which he swore his oath, rescinded that state’s death penalty moratorium.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. One man was two days from state-administered lethal injection when the evidence clearing him came to light.

Ryan appointed a blue-ribbon panel to make recommendations to improve Illinois’ flawed justice system, and, when the state legislature failed to enact any of those recommendations, took the dramatic step of commuting the death sentences.

He cited his reasons:

“Thirty-three of the death row inmates were represented at trial by an attorney who had later been disbarred or at some point suspended from practicing law.

“Of the more than 160 death row inmates, 35 were African-American defendants who had been convicted or condemned to die not by juries of their peers but by all-white juries.

“More than two-thirds of the inmates on death row were African-American.

“And 46 inmates were convicted on the basis of testimony from jailhouse informants.”

“To say it plainly,” Ryan continued, “the Illinois capital punishment system is broken. It has taken innocent men to a hair’s breadth escape from their unjust execution. Legislatures past have refused to fix it. Our new legislature and our new governor must act to rid our state of the shame of threatening the innocent with execution and the guilty with unfairness.”

In commuting the death sentences, George Ryan did the right thing. He did justice. One innocent man or woman killed by the government in our name is one too many.

It is perhaps more difficult than ever to talk about the moral bankruptcy of the death penalty. The culture at the moment is given to supporting the growth of a prison industry to accommodate record numbers of prisoners subjected to increasingly severe sentences; Attorney General John Ashcroft, weighing in on the D.C. area sniper case, put at the top of the list prosecution in a jurisdiction that would provide easiest access to the death penalty; Ashcroft has further overseen the incarceration of U.S. citizens and others in secret, without access to representation or contact with anyone in the outside world.

No one wants to be perceived as being soft on crime. Ryan, however, raises the more compelling question of whether we’re being soft on justice and simple fairness.

His fellow governors would be well served to hear his reservations and to take the time to carefully study their own state systems before allowing more executions.

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003