With one stroke of his pen Republican Governor George Ryan last weekend overturned the sentences of 167 Illinois death row inmates, reducing most sentences to life. With his bold action he may have set the stage for a bona fide agenda for amending disparate capital punishment laws in this country.
With his term coming to an end in 48 hours, the pharmacist-turned-politician showed the courage of his conviction that the application of capital punishment in his state — and the nation — is “arbitrary and capricious and, therefore, immoral.” Since he didn’t have the authority to abolish capital punishment in Illinois, he did the next best thing his authority allowed — he emptied every cell on the state’s death row.
In a speech broadcast nationwide last Saturday, he said he made his decision after realizing early in his one term in office that capital punishment had been unjustly applied in many cases, calling it “flawed and unfair.”
During his gubernatorial tenure it was discovered, through incontrovertible, new DNA technology, that 13 men on death row were vindicated. Regrettably, 12 of them had already been executed, which is presumably what led him to his ultimate decision.
Ryan, who was elected as a proponent of the death penalty, admitted he never intended to get embroiled in the issue. However, he felt compelled soon after he took office when an Illinois death row inmate was exonerated and freed just 48 hours be-fore his scheduled execution. Three years ago Ryan declared a moratorium on carrying out death sentences. He subsequently urged the state legislature to reexamine the state’s death penalty law, but the politicians ignored him.
As expected, the inmates and their families joyously received Ryan’s action, especially the four convicted murderers he pardoned last Friday. Ryan said they were “tortured into confessing” at a Chicago stationhouse with a notorious reputation for mistreating suspects that was disclosed following an internal inquiry.
Equally anticipated was the outrage from families’ of the victims, prosecutors, the incoming governor and proponents of the death penalty.
Three of those freed from death row had their sentences reduced to 40 years to match the terms doled out to their partners in crime. The others were all commuted to life sentences without parole.
The lame duck governor noted his action was also influenced after a recent conversation with South African president Nelson Mandela who reminded him that the U.S., which claims to set an example for fairness and justice for the rest of the world, “was not in league with Europe, Canada, Mexico, most of South and Central America,” where the death penalty has been rejected. Ryan added that “even Russia has called a moratorium” for capital punishment.
Ryan’s controversial action was in line with most U.S. governors’ extensive, unchecked powers, and draws attention to and questions how capital punishment has been applied in the U.S. since the Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976.
Capital punishment cases are often affected by the quality of one’s defense. It is widely held that many criminals who have been sentenced to death receive incompetent counsel. Indeed, many lawyers in capital cases were subsequently disbarred or had their licenses suspended for inadequate representation in capital cases.
It is now up to prosecutors and others in the 38 states where the death penalty exists to painstakingly examine the cases of the 3,700 men and women currently on death row to insure that the evidence used is unquestionably reliable and they were justly convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.
In conjunction with a drop in the nationwide murder rate, the number of executions in the country is at its lowest since 1973. But in the last few years, innovative scientific techniques have been developed that practically guarantee a suspect’s involvement in a crime. DNA evidence is purported to be more reliable than fingerprints.
In fact, dozens of U.S. congressmen support a proposal that would insure inmates’ access to DNA testing and also establish higher standards for attorneys handling their cases.
Capital punishment is still favored by about 70 percent of Americans. Those who back the death penalty should demand the system that sanctions killing to meticulously reexamine itself before another innocent person is executed.
In the conclusion of his speech Governor Ryan said he was going to sleep well that night knowing he made the appropriate decision. The minority opposed to capital punishment no doubt also sleeps well, feeling secure in their belief that America’s system of capital punishment is outrageous, unfair and unconscionable for a civilized society.