George Ryan and the Death Penalty | Bleader

George Ryan and the Death Penalty


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


Like it or not, George Ryan has his monument. The Illinois Senate voted Tuesday to abolish the death penalty. The bill, which had already passed the house, will go to Governor Quinn for his signature, and that will be that: the door will be locked to Death Row, which Ryan cleaned out as governor eight years ago at the end of his single term as governor.

For his sins and crimes, Ryan, 76, has spent the last three years in prison, with the exception of a few hours he was granted the other day to visit his dying wife. The sins and crimes were real; it has never been easy to think fully and clearly about Ryan, and it gets no easier now.

But James Merriner took a shot at it in his 2008 book, The Man Who Emptied Death Row: Governor George Ryan and the Politics of Crime. It was on my shelf so I opened it to see what Merriner had to say.

No apologist for the former governor, he nevertheless wrote:

A widespread school of thought holds that Ryan's moratorium, pardons, and blanket commutation sought three things: first, applause from liberals, especially the liberal news media — conservatives distrusted him and were not about to support him anyway; second, approval from the electorate; and third, at least grudging admiration from prosecutors because Ryan displayed moral courage.

None of these points survives a scrutiny of the record. However delighted were liberals, they had no influence on the U.S. attorney's office in a particular case, and Ryan seemed genuinely surprised by the warmth of the liberal embrace of him, a lifelong Republican. As for the electorate, public opinion polls on the death penalty fluctuate over time, but in general, a solid majority of Americans support it. When he emptied death row, Ryan had retired from politics anyway. As for prosecutors, they tend to support the death penalty and hardly would be more sympathetic to a defendant who overturned it.

Never mind, say Ryan's critics, the real point is that his intended audience was simply the liberal minority-group members who make up much of the Cook County jury pool. Most death row convicts were African American or Hispanic....

Such a view of Ryan's motives overlooks two factors: First is the tremendous liberation that politicians experience when they no longer have to face the voters. Ryan was not running for reelection and therefore could act on how he truly thought and felt....The second factor is that Ryan was convinced he was innocent and thus had no need to snooker a jury....The more I studied the man and his career, the more it seemed clear that he really did not believe his activities were criminal. Blanket clemency was not meant to deter or defeat an indictment because he never thought an indictment or conviction would happen. Such a proposition seems dubious until one contemplates the human capacity for self-delusion.

Even if the death penalty deters crime, Merriner went on, "Ryan found a system so wrecked it provided no deterrent." So he did what he did, and eight years later the state decided the system could not be put in order. Ryan is not fondly remembered in Illinois, and if there'd been a way for Springfield to discredit the conclusions he drew about capital punishment, or to make them irrelevant, I imagine Springfield would have taken it. But every time Springfield — or the media — took another look at the death penalty, they saw structural injustice that could not be scrubbed clean or wished away.

"An ordinary man from an ordinary midwestern city changed the terms of a worldwide debate on a crucial moral issue," Merriner concluded. Yet that man's in prison himself — a living argument for less categorical thinking about good and evil, crime and punishment.