Second Thoughts on the Death Penalty

Republican Governor George Ryan of Illinois made national news last month by announcing that he would halt executions until properly satisfied that "everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty." His concern isn't difficult to understand. Since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977, more death row inmates have been exonerated (13) than executed (12), and more than half the state's 285 death sentences have been reversed on appeal. Ryan's decision makes Illinois the first of the country's 38 death penalty states to formally suspend executions, and it has generated a flood of attention. "One Courageous Governor" declared the St. Petersburg Times. "Principled Governor Bravely Halts Executions," blared the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Other outlets touted the move as "bold" and evidence of "gritty political courage." In fact, it was evidence of something entirely different.

Only a year ago, Ryan dismissed the notion of a moratorium when he declared the case of Anthony Porter--the third man freed from death row by a Northwestern University journal-ism professor and his class--proof "the system worked." Then, this January, former police officer Steve Manning became the 13th man freed from death row, and another professor and his class, from Chicago-Kent College of Law, just filed a wrongful conviction motion and now appear close to freeing a 14th inmate. In November, a Chicago Tribune series titled The Failure of the Death Penalty in Illinois laid bare the problems with the state's capital justice system: corrupt prosecutors, police misconduct, racial bias, disbarred or suspended defense attorneys, and an overreliance on jailhouse informants.

A common misperception about Ryan's moratorium is that prior to his declaration there existed a coterie of Illinois legislators bent on executing inmates of questionable guilt. Quite the opposite is true. Few any longer maintain that the capital justice system is not seriously flawed. The near absence of criticism directed at Ryan--even among staunch death penalty supporters--is evidence of how badly improvements are needed. It's no surprise that Ryan reconsidered his position; a majority of Illinoisans already favored a moratorium. In a state where springing an innocent man from death row has become a class project, Ryan did the only thing that made sense.

Symbolically, of course, the move is important. Although Ryan has called for a task force to identify the system's shortcomings, his opposition is not to the death penalty in principle, but rather to how the system was working in practice. Two days after Ryan suspended executions, for instance, prosecutors in DuPage County announced plans to seek the death penalty for a woman accused of killing her children, pointing out that "the law has not been repealed." His task force, too, is more symbolic than practically effective; numerous death penalty studies are already underway in Illinois, with the state supreme court, general assembly, and bar association each expected to issue reports this spring. None will likely convince Ryan to make the moratorium permanent, and his continued support of capital punishment carries the implicit promise that one day he'll reinstate the death penalty.

By miscasting the significance of Ryan's decision, newspapers have overlooked the more surprising fact that legislators and voters have embraced it. This wouldn't always have been the case. Enthusiasm for the death penalty in the mid-1970s grew from widespread disgust at what many believed was an excessive liberalism in the criminal-justice system--an attitude that held through much of the 1990s. The notable absence of such a sentiment this time around suggests a change in the political climate. Twelve states now have moratorium bills pending. The Justice Department is reviewing every federal case for evidence of racial bias. And President Clinton, not one to ignore public sentiment, has indicated that he'll consider halting federal executions over concern with the issues raised in Illinois. With Ryan's move garnering near-unanimous praise, governors elsewhere may be inclined to follow suit.

Ironically, Ryan's admission of flaws in the death penalty system puts him sharply at odds with the presidential candidate whose Illinois campaign Ryan chairs, George W. Bush. In his five years as Texas governor, Bush has presided over more than 120 executions [see Alan Berlow, "Lethal Injustice, page 54], a fact that may not go over well in Illinois, where voters have begun to take note of the death penalty's flaws. Indeed, the real news about Ryan's announcement is that it demonstrates how untenable is a position like Bush's, once voters become aware of how the system works.