Illinois justice

Before leaving office earlier this month, Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 men on death row and pardoned outright four others, thus placing in limbo, at least temporarily, the state’s death penalty. Ryan was widely praised by death-penalty opponents in the United States and abroad. Prosecutors and victims’ groups were outraged, and few politicians seemed eager to follow in Ryan’s footsteps. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), a declared candidate for president, called the governor’s action "shockingly wrong. It did terrible damage to the credibility of our system of justice, and particularly for victims. It was obviously not a case-by-case review, and that’s what our system is all about."

Critics of the death penalty, especially in Illinois, might fairly point out that "terrible damage to the credibility of our system of justice" had already been done by a series of revelations about forced confessions, lying informers, and innocent men sentenced to death. In recent years, seventeen men awaiting execution in Illinois have been proven to be innocent. Clearly, something is very wrong with the state’s justice system. Ryan, a former death-penalty supporter, was convinced that an innocent person would soon be killed by the state.

It is not clear, however, whether Ryan’s dramatic action will help or retard the effort to abolish capital punishment. Most Americans support the death penalty for particularly heinous crimes, and most legislators are chary of challenging those views. Reasonable people can disagree about the justice of capital punishment, and unilateral judicial or executive steps to abolish it are likely to arouse resentment.

What is increasingly hard for fair-minded people to disagree about is the unreliability of the judicial system. Too many mistakes have been brought to light, in Illinois and elsewhere, for death-penalty advocates to remain sanguine. Too much is at stake, for the community and the accused, for anyone to remain complacent. As the novelist Scott Turow, a former Illinois prosecutor and death-penalty advocate, has recently written, "Perhaps the best argument against capital punishment may be that it is an issue beyond the limited capacity of government to get things right." When it comes to life and death, there should be no margin for error.

Published in the 2003-01-31 issue: 
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