Death penalty follies In Illinois

A cynic might suggest that he did it to curry favor with those soon to be his neighbors. Others might suggest that he hopes for a little pro bono legal aid from the Northwestern University Law School students who participated in a death penalty study which sparked initial concerns about its administration in Illinois.

OK, OK. So I’m a cynic.

I speak, of course, of former Illinois Governor George Ryan, Republican, who may be facing more quality time in public housing subsequent to his stint in the Governor’s Mansion, based upon a pending investigation into allegations of criminal wrongdoing.

On Saturday, two days before leaving office after his single term, Ryan emptied out Illinois’ death row, commuting the sentences of most inmates sentenced to death to life in prison (sentences for three were reduced to terms of 40 years, to comport with sentences of co-defendants). Numbers vary within one online journal, the figure cited was 156; elsewhere it was reported that 167 were spared but regardless of the actual number, Ryan declared the state’s capital-punishment system to be “arbitrary, capricious, immoral” and unfair.

“Arbitrary”? “Capricious”? You mean, like issuing blanket commutations without regard to whether there is a question of their guilt, or of the heinous nature of their crimes?

One day before, Ryan had pardoned four death-row inmates entirely, citing the fact that police in Chicago had tortured them to obtain their confessions.

Few would dispute the first decision. Torture is unacceptable in the American system of justice. Aside from being a notoriously ineffective way of obtaining information, it violates our standards of decency, rendering suspect anything arising out of it. Indeed, it is not too debatable that those pardons were textbook examples of the appropriate use of executive clemency.

Saturday’s event, however, was little more than an exercise in moral exhibitionism. And it was an exhibition almost certainly less respectable than might be observed by dyed-in-the-wool death penalty opponents.

Indeed, the blanket commutation of death sentences would have almost certainly been more understandable, and respectable, had it been issued by a politician morally and publicly opposed to the death penalty. After all, such an individual would have had to have already faced the voters with that credential on his or her sleeve. At least a portion of the mandate obtained by election would have been to advance the anti-death penalty agenda.

Indeed, it was only after I became a little more sophisticated in the ways of politics (i.e., I grew up) that I learned that the reason why (usually, but not exclusively) leftist death penalty opponents had not done this previously is because they wanted to “maintain their viability” within the system, and almost certainly would have faced electoral disaster had they done so.

At the same time, note that Ryan has now done what even a retiring death penalty opponent has never had the courage of his or her convictions to do and simply used his executive power to defeat at least temporarily what Justice Harry Blackmun colorfully called “the machinery of death.” Or was he talking about abortion? Sometimes, I get confused. Or maybe he was confused. Whatever.

But Ryan’s irrevocable action like the Great Prevaricator’s midnight pardons, there is no review goes far beyond his three-year-old decision to place a moratorium on executions after the exoneration of 13 death-row inmates in the state.

That decision was the right one, but Ryan’s ultimate action was little more than indulgence of self-congratulatory, pseudomoralistic claptrap. Serious questions had been raised when he imposed the moratorium three years ago, and thirteen death-row inmates were not only released on technicalities, but were affirmatively exonerated when others were revealed as the perpetrators.

Say what you will about the death penalty, but such errors raise serious questions about its administration, independent of its merits.

So Ryan was right, three years ago, when he halted executions in Illinois, and he was right, five days ago, when he issued pardons to individuals whose confessions had been elicited by torture.

But a blanket commutation of the sentences of eight score or more murderers, without regard to their guilt or innocence? Plato wrote that Socrates defined justice as “giving each man his due.” If so, then Ryan’s act was anything but justice.

Moreover, the pathetic, hour-long performance before an adoring crowd of Northwestern University students and death penalty opponents demonstrated just how narcissistic his decision was. Ryan quoted virtually every far-Left shibboleth to justify his decision, from race-baiting politics to the class warfare rhetoric so typical of the Democrat speech lexicon. It is difficult to imagine that his decision was anything but an appeal to liberal editorial writers, since it was such an affront to virtually everyone else: victims; judges, police; witnesses; society as a whole, damned by the outgoing Illinois governor as racist at its core, and uncivilized to boot.

Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney interviewed on CNN shortly after Ryan’s announcement, perhaps put it best, when he declared Ryan’s action to be “the ultimate betrayal.” In doing so, Ryan betrayed not only the victims of those he has spared, or the prosecutors, or the police, but has betrayed the law that, just four years and a few days ago, he had sworn to uphold.

An attorney, Young lives with his wife and their two sons in Montclair, who are under standing orders to sue the tails off of anyone having anything to do with his untimely demise.

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