Illinois Governor George Ryan, his term in office drawing to a close, has commuted the death sentences for all 156 inmates awaiting execution on the state’s death row. In doing so, he has apparently chosen to follow the Jimmy Carter model, which is to say he hopes to find in retirement the respectability and adulation denied to him while in office. Perhaps Matt Lauer will one day refer to him as “Illinois’s greatest former governor.” The cynic may argue that Ryan, under criminal investigation for corruption in both his campaign and administration, may have been moved to act as he did by the desire for a friendly reception should he someday find himself walking the yard in pressed denim. “Hi, fellas. I’m the guy who got you off the row, remember?”
Whatever his motivation, Ryan’s action is an insult to the justice system, one more injurious than any of the system’s flaws he cited in his speech at Northwestern University on Saturday. Addressing an enthusiastic crowd of students, defense attorneys, and assorted other death-penalty opponents, Ryan chided his state’s legislators for failing to address the crisis. “[B]ecause the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious — and therefore immoral — I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death,” Ryan said, bringing the crowd to its feet. Granted, there have been inmates condemned to death in Illinois only to be exonerated later, in one instance only days before the scheduled execution, and the governor has rightly criticized flaws in individual cases that raise questions as to the propriety of a death sentence. But Ryan’s decision to issue a blanket commutation on 156 death sentences, even in cases where there is not a shred of doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, is no less arbitrary and capricious than the “broken” system he so passionately criticizes. He had four years in office to institute reform in the system, but now leaves office on a wave of pieties and platitudes, leaving to his successor a system now, thanks to him, even more in chaos than when he was inaugurated.
Ryan trotted out many of the shibboleths so often heard from death-penalty opponents, criticisms that may make for nice sound-bites on the news or heart-wrenching quotes in the fawning op-ed pieces that will surely appear in the New York Times and elsewhere: The system is unfair to minorities and the poor; other Western nations have abolished the death penalty, and our continued practice of it places us in the company of barbarous regimes; only two percent of the murders in Illinois result in a death sentence; both Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu have beseeched him to abolish the death penalty; and on and on and on.
First, as to the supplications of Mandela and Tutu, one only need examine the ongoing carnage on the streets of South Africa, where the murder rate is roughly ten times that of the United States, to see that it is perhaps the last country in the world we should look to for guidance in the administration of justice. Indeed, it is the rest of the world, even the enlightened of Western Europe, who should look to us as a model of a democracy flourishing under the rule of law. In the last century, Europe gave us Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Vichy France, and all their accompanying horrors. I choose to look to Europe for the richness of its history, not its morality. And if it is true that only two percent of Illinois’s murders result in a death sentence, isn’t that an argument that the system is anything but arbitrary and capricious, that death sentences are meted out only after careful consideration by prosecutors, judges, and above all juries, and even then only in such cases where the crime is so horrific that execution is clearly warranted?
But the greatest insult to common sense in Ryan’s speech was his invocation of those last-resort weapons of the left: race and class. “[T]he death penalty,” said Ryan, “is being sought with increasing frequency in some states against the poor and minorities . . . Seldom are people with money or prestige convicted of capital offenses, even more seldom are they executed.”
There is a simple reason for this, Governor Ryan: People with money and prestige, with the possible exception of some in the entertainment industry and professional sports, have acquired both their money and their prestige by conforming to society’s conventions, one of the more obvious of which is refraining from the type of conduct likely to earn one a seat in the defendant’s chair at a murder trial.
On Sunday, the Chicago Tribune published a list of the inmates spared from execution, along with a synopsis of the crime for which each was sentenced to death. Consider the following:
— Lorenzo Fayne: Stabbed or strangled four girls, ages 9 to 17. He sexually assaulted one victim and molested the body of another.
— Anthony Brown: Strangled and suffocated a 67-year-old woman in her home. He had previously served time in prison for rape.
— Evan Griffith: While already serving a sentence for murder, stabbed a fellow inmate to death at the Pontiac Correctional Center.
— Lenard Johnson: Stabbed an 11-year-old boy to death and sexually assaulted three girls, ages 7, 11, and 13, while babysitting them in their home.
— Fedell Caffey and Jacqueline Williams: Shot a pregnant woman in her home, cut the nearly full-term baby from her womb, and stabbed her two children.
Ryan told his audience Saturday that he “will sleep well knowing [he] made the right decision.” Others will not be so fortunate: They are the families of the 250 people murdered by the depraved beneficiaries of the outgoing governor’s crisis of conscience.
There is a Jewish proverb in the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “He who is kind to the cruel is cruel to the kind.” You’ve made your choice, Governor Ryan. Enjoy your sleep.
— Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.