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George Ryan and The Making of Death Penalty History
Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

by Shelagh Simmons

On Saturday, 11 January 2003, death penalty history was made when outgoing Governor of the State of Illinois, George Ryan, announced that he was commuting all death sentences in his state. At a stroke, his action reprieved more than 160 men and women, and for most replaced death with life imprisonment without parole (LWOP). The previous day, Governor Ryan had pardoned 4 condemned men, 3 of whom were released immediately on the grounds of their likely innocence. The three all had credible evidence that the confessions upon which they were convicted were obtained by the police via the use of torture.

George Ryan does not fit the profile of a political liberal. Far from it. A diehard Republican, who voted for the 1977 restoration of capital punishment, he carried on supporting it. When he was elected Governor of Illinois in late 1998, there was every reason to suppose that executions would continue. Indeed, he signed one death warrant and oversaw the execution. So what happened?

In George Ryan's own words, he "never intended to be an activist on this issue". But "I watched in surprise as freed death row inmate Anthony Porter was released from jail. Porter was 48 hours away from being wheeled into the execution chamber where the state would kill him. It would all be so antiseptic and most of us would not have even paused, except that Anthony Porter was innocent of the double murder for which he had been condemned to die".

African-American Anthony Porter, a gang member from the poverty-stricken Chicago housing projects, had been sentenced to death in September 1983. He had exhausted all his appeals. His family was resigned to his forthcoming death and had even made his funeral arrangements. Then he was granted a stay of execution. It was granted not because it was feared he might be innocent, but because he had scored so low on an IQ test that the court could not be certain the requirement would be met that he should understand he was about to be executed, and why.

The stay gave time for University Professor David Protess and a group of journalism students to investigate the case. They discovered a record of incompetent legal representation. They tracked down the witness who claimed to have seen Mr Porter commit the murders. The witness admitted he had lied, and said he had done so under police pressure. The real perpetrator was found and later confessed.

Having been sentenced to death in 1983, Anthony Porter was finally freed nearly 17 years later in February 1999.

But what shocked George Ryan even more was the fact that Mr Porter's release brought the number of exonerated death row inmates to 13. That number exceeded the 12 executions carried out since 1977.

After having a prolonged study of the administration of the death penalty in Illinois conducted, Governor Ryan concluded that the system could not be fixed and guaranteed free from error.

In the final months and weeks of his Governorship, George Ryan received many appeals for blanket clemency. They came from activists within the United States such as the Rev Jesse Jackson and Sister Helen Prejean. And they came from around the world, from abolitionist groups like Caribbean Justice, and from individuals including former South African President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who told him that "to take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, it is not justice". An appeal was also sent on the Pope's behalf from the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States.

Governor Ryan also received equal pressure from opponents of commutations, including families of murder victims.

But in an historic speech on 11 January, George Ryan explained that he was granting blanket clemency "because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious - and therefore immoral". Then, echoing former Supreme Court Judge Harry Blackmun's famous quote from 1994, he declared "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death".

He said he had agonised over what to do, and spoke of the pain he knew his decision would cause the families of murder victims, who wanted the executions to proceed believing it would bring closure. But he asked "Is that the purpose of capital punishment? Is it to soothe the families? And is that truly what the families experience?". He went on "What kind of victims services are we providing? Are all of our resources geared toward providing this notion of closure by execution instead of tending to the physical and social service needs of victim families? And what kind of values are we instilling in these wounded families and in the young people? As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind".

Governor Ryan's announcement was greeted with joy and anger. Joy from the families of those exonerated who had lived with the fear that their innocent relatives would be executed, and from the families of those whose sentences were commuted. Anger from the families of some murder victims, though one observed that at least the decision had ended the "roller coaster" of emotion and brought the matter to an end. Anger from politicians. Anger from prosecutors.

And that anger highlights one of the worst effects of judicial killing. It promotes a culture of violence in which anything other than death is not considered punishment, and in which victims' families feel cheated if death is not the final outcome. It promotes a culture in which those murder victims' families who oppose capital punishment are left isolated because everything is geared up to death. Indeed, they have even been accused by death penalty supporters of moral cowardice, and have been excluded from participating in the criminal justice system in the way that those who favour the death penalty have not.

Yet those whose sentences were commuted to LWOP will never be released, so the guilty will be punished while the danger of executing an innocent person will be eliminated.

For his actions George Ryan has been vilified by some. By others he is considered a hero who should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Cynics may say he was not standing for re-election so had nothing politically to lose. We believe he was simply doing what was right.

It is difficult to predict what the repercussions of Governor Ryan's decision will be. But whatever they are, we welcome his act of justice and humanity, and are certain history will judge him kindly.

This momentous event in death penalty history has just been followed by an announcement from the newly democratically elected Kenyan government that it wants to join the majority of countries in the world and abolish the death penalty within the next 6 months. Welcoming the news of the Illinois commutations, Kenya's Justice Minister Kiraitu Murungi expressed surprise "that any country with such a civilised legal system like the United States still maintains this penalty in its statue books". Acknowledging there is still support for capital punishment in Kenya, he said it was nevertheless wrong. In a world where political expediency and the death penalty are usually inextricably linked, this is a refreshing departure.

As the debate on the use of hanging in the Caribbean rages on, the political leaders advocating state killing should ask themselves if the judicial systems of the region possess the safeguards required for the irreversible act of taking a human life. Of course, they will reassure that the police and courts are adequate to the task.

While there are excellent jurists in the Caribbean, any simple examination of the system will reveal endless delays, confessions used in court that were extracted via torture, a lack of skill and resources in the area of forensic science, inadequate provision of defence lawyers and so on. The system is every bit as bad as that in Illinois, if not worse.

It is time for the political leaders of the Caribbean to stop manipulating the understandable anger caused by violent crime. The death penalty is not the answer and will not reduce the murder rate. The governments of the region should follow the brave and principled example of their counterparts in Kenya, Chile, Russia, South Africa and many other nations. The political leaders of these countries have (or have announced their intention to) abolished capital punishment.

For as Dr Martin Luther King Jr noted "Cowardice asks the question, "Is it safe?". Expediency asks the question, "Is it politic?". Vanity asks the question, "Is it popular?". But, conscience asks the question, "Is it right?". And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right."

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