Monday, January 13, 2003
Justice and the death penalty: On Saturday, Illinois Gov. George Ryan committed a grave injustice. Gov. Ryan, who was leaving office with a cloud of corruption over his legacy, now leaves office as the darling of the liberal left for commuting the sentences of 167 people on his state's death row.
Ryan's decision is unlikely to reinvigorate the anti-death penalty campaign. The vast majority of the American people support the death penalty and Ryan's action doesn't change that. What is likely to change, however, is the power of the executive in the state of Illinois. Expect to see Illinois follow the example of Texas, which requires a review board to approve commutations before the governor has the opportunity to grant a pardon or commutation.
Ryan was not serving justice -- he was serving himself. For the vast majority of the persons whose sentences he commuted, there was no question of their guilt. No evidence of police or prosecutorial misconduct. Included in those pardoned are baby murderers and cop killers.
Jon Van Schaik, a Chicago firefighter whose brother Roger was one of two police officers fatally shot on a South Side street in 1979, said he hoped Ryan would soon face charges in the corruption scandal and then "spend the rest of his life in prison."
"How can one person have all of this authority and power?" Van Schaik said. "It's making a mockery and a farce out of our legal system and our prison system."
Death penalty opponents are applauding the move, but it's really a blow to their cause.
The death penalty won't face a serious political test in this country until, unfortunately, someone truly innocent is executed.
In the approximately 30-odd years since the death penalty was reinstated in many states hundreds of brutal and depraved murderers have paid the ultimate price for their heinous crimes. Not one of them has later proven to be innocent.
We've come close a few times. One man in Illinois was exonerated about 48-hours before he was scheduled to die. And numerous people have been freed through the use of DNA testing that implicated others.
But all of these examples, including the long time spent on death row before the sentence is carried out -- often more than a decade -- show that the system is working. The lack of a truly "innocent victim" of the death penalty is what hurts death penalty opponents the most.
Despite its flaws -- our judicial system works.