Seldom does a governor risk public ridicule and taunting. But earlier this month, Illinois Gov. George Ryan did just that before his term ended. He cleared the state's death row population, allowing four inmates to go free, and commuted the sentences of 167 others awaiting death to life without parole.
Despite criticism from victims' families and furious state prosecutors, Ryan insists he has no regrets. "Listen," he said repeatedly after he departed office, "we nearly killed innocent people. The system is broken."
Sometimes, you have to do the right thing, and George Ryan is one of the few politicians with the guts to do it.
To opponents of capital punishment, Ryan is bold and brilliant. To others, he is a turncoat. It had to be unnerving for him to listen as women who looked more like church ushers than outraged protesters called him nearly everything from a slimebag to a phony politician.
Their anger was understandable, even to Ryan. On one TV show, he said with resignation: "I can take it."
Then he asked, "What makes us any better than those who were justly condemned if we kill innocent people knowing our system is faulty?" Good question.
Ryan, a Republican, went into office as a proponent of capital punishment. Four years later, he now says he's wrestling with his position. He's fought to protect death row inmates from a system often rigged against them. He was determined that not a single innocent inmate should die as a result of physical brutality, coerced confessions, inadequate legal representation, judicial errors or overzealous prosecutors.
Three years ago, death took a holiday in Illinois as he declared a moratorium against capital punishment after 13 death-row inmates had been exonerated -- in one case, just two days before a scheduled lethal injection.
Capital punishment has long been one of the most controversial issues in U.S. law and politics. On one side stand those who believe, as philosopher Robert Nisbet puts it, that all people, regardless of their condition, must take responsibility for their actions.
Nisbet's fierce philosophy offers little latitude to convicted criminals. His view is quite direct: If you're unwilling to accept the ultimate punishment, don't perpetrate the ultimate crime. He cuts no slack even to those he refers to as "morons," or others who may have grown up in poverty or on the wrong side of the tracks:
"The celebrated dignity of man oozes away in an atmosphere where man is so little prized for his unique mental and moral qualities as to be classified from the start a victim. Rights, duties, responsibilities, restraints, consciences, moral codes, all of these are visibly softening and decaying under the influence of victimology -- no longer a specialty of criminology but a gigantic malaise of Western society."
Many families of victims would rush to Nisbet's side.
"What about our feelings?" railed one woman whose younger sister was butchered by a man on death row in Illinois.
But on one television program, another woman pointed out that capital punishment often doesn't carry either legal or emotional closure: "Perhaps it would be worth the risk of killing an innocent person if the execution of a convicted inmate would change anything. But executions don't change anything. I met a woman whose mother and sister were murdered in the Holocaust. The woman had been against capital punishment. But when they caught Adolf Eichmann, she agreed he should be killed. After he was executed in Israel, she said she didn't feel any better. (She said,) 'I thought my mother and sister would come back to me. It was an empty promise. I didn't feel any better after Eichmann's death."'
Victims' families call for vengeance louder than they call for justice. While Ryan is sympathetic, he rejects this attitude.
"This is about justice, not retribution," he said. "What about those on death row? Some of them are victims, too. They have families. I sleep well at night because I'm convinced I made the right decision. This is not about politics. It's about civil rights. It's probably about the most important civil right of our time."
Ryan hopes his actions will push chronically timid state legislators around the country to do what needs to be done: Act responsibly; act to protect the lives of the innocent.
Claude Lewis is a retired columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.