To the citizens of Illinois, as well as opponents and advocates of the death penalty nationwide, it may simply become known as January 11. On that day last year, then-Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 death row inmates and freed four others. It was by far the widest use of clemency by any governor in United States history. Three years earlier, Ryan had declared a moratorium on executions in his state.
Ryan is a Republican who supported the death penalty for most of his life. What spurred him to reverse long-standing views on criminal justice that he had carried well into his 60s? In his January 11 address, delivered at Northwestern University, he cited deep flaws in every stage of the state’s criminal justice system, particularly discrepancies based on the race, geography, and income level of defendants who were sentenced to death versus those who were not. More than two-thirds of the inmates on death row were African American. Juries were three-and-ahalf times more likely to prescribe a death sentence if the victim of a crime was white than if the victim was black. Prisoners were more than five times as likely to get a death sentence in rural areas of Illinois than in Chicago’s Cook County. Thirty-three death row inmates were represented at trial by an attorney who was later disbarred or was at some point suspended from practicing law. Ryan referred to several cases where the state came close to executing an innocent person—once coming within 48-hours of doing so—and stressed that since Illinois legislators, himself included, reinstated the death penalty in 1977, more death row inmates had been exonerated (13) than executed (12).
But do these faults suggest that capital punishment is part of a broken system that just needs mending, or is it an inherently flawed policy that should be abolished on principle? Indeed, his experience over his four years as governor prompted Ryan to reconsider whether the death penalty could ever be morally justified. In his public deliberations on the subject, he presented himself not only as a politician wrestling with complicated legal and moral decisions, but as a human being whose sense of fairness and decency had been offended. In his January 11 address, he called the Illionis death penalty system “arbitrary and capricious—and therefore immoral,” and concluded, “The legislature couldn’t reform it. Lawmakers won’t repeal it. But I will not stand for it. I must act.”
Ryan’s personal struggles on this issue raise a host of political questions about how, if at all, moral values and human emotions like compassion should inform criminal justice policy and public policy as a whole. He recently discussed these issues with Greater Good.
Greater Good: You said in your January 11th address that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had written to you earlier that week, stating that “to take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, it is not justice,” and that justice allows for mercy, clemency, and compassion.
Do you agree with this—is there room for compassion in justice?
George Ryan: Well, I don’t think there’s any question about it. There has to be compassion in everything we do. And I would think especially that would be true in the criminal justice system, where you have such a major impact on people’s lives.
GG: But if we show compassion in sparing prisoners from the death penalty, do we start down a slippery slope? Why should we extend compassion when it comes to the death penalty but not in sparing others from life in prison?
GR: Because of the finality of it. For anything less than the crime for which you’d be put to death, you can always undo it. If you’re thrown in prison for the rest of your life, you can still prove your innocence.
GG: And yet we have a criminal justice system where the death penalty is in place across much of the country regardless of all the flaws it seems to have. Does that say something about compassion in our society?
GR: I spent a good deal of time on the 167 prisoners that I commuted. Now they’re sentenced to life in prison. I read their backgrounds, had some understanding of what kind of lives they’d led from the time they were born. I guess you could call that a compassionate concern. But I think it had a bearing on their actions. We had one young man, when he was three or four months old his mother would put beer in his baby bottle so he’d sleep. Needless to say, he was mentally impaired and not totally responsible for his actions. Is it compassionate to say that this really isn’t his fault and he shouldn’t be executed? I think it is. But there are those who wouldn’t agree.
GG: Why isn’t there a more widespread “compassionate concern,” as you call it, on this issue in the United States?
GR: I was in Rome a month ago and spoke mostly in media venues, and the question always was, “Why are Americans not as compassionate, as understanding, and why are they so willing to be so much more free with life than the Europeans?” Why that is I don’t know. I do know there isn’t a country in Europe that’s got the death penalty, and they find it hard to understand why we do. So they don’t think that we’re as compassionate or as understanding as they are. Or as caring.
GG: Do you agree with that?
GR: Well, I don’t know if I’d say that we’re not as caring. I think there are different circumstances for how we got where we are as a country. My mission, as I travel around and speak today, is to call for a worldwide, or at least a national, moratorium on the death penalty so people can do what we did in Illinois: take a look at it, take some cases and study it, and determine whether we ought to continue with the death penalty as a country.
GG: When you first declared the moratorium in Illinois, you said you felt the death penalty could be an “appropriate punishment” for the worst crimes. Do you still feel this way?
GR: Well, it’s one of those arguments I’m still kind of having with myself, and that’s why I think we ought to have a moratorium—so we could have some kind of world meeting of the minds on the death penalty. I think that there may be cause [to administer the death penalty], and then sometimes I think that because the system will never be able to work the way it should, we ought to eliminate it. I would suppose if I had to come down on a side, I would say I’m for abolition now. I would be for eliminating the death penalty.
GG: There’s a recent New York Times Magazine article about how a jury composed entirely of people who support the death penalty declined to sentence a man to death. Many jurors said they couldn’t take the responsibility of ending his life once they heard his story and realized that they were dealing with an actual human being. Do you think policy makers go through the same process in considering whether or not to support the death penalty?
GR: Sure. When we reinstated the death penalty in Illinois, I was a strong supporter of the death penalty. I was a member of the General Assembly, and I voted for it, only to be questioned by an opponent asking if we— not me personally, but those of us who had voted in favor of the measure—wanted to be the executioner. That gave me pause for thought, but I still thought it was a necessary part of the system, and I voted for it. Little did I know that some 20 years later I was going to be put into the position of being the executioner.
GG: And what would be your main reasons for coming down on the side of abolition?
GR: Because I think the system is just a bad system, and I don’t think it could ever be made perfect. If you haven’t got a perfect system for the ultimate punishment, then you shouldn’t have the system.
GG: Even if it seemed there was a chance we could eliminate the likelihood of executing the innocent—through better and more widespread DNA testing, for instance?
GR: Yes, but now, if you’re talking about— after somebody has been arrested, indicted, and convicted—about having a system that puts them to death in a fair fashion, I don’t know that we could ever get there. There’s more to it than DNA testing. Let me give you an example. If you’re a minority and you’re poor, you don’t get the top quality defense that you should get. Take public defenders. We don’t pay them much, they’re overworked, they get more cases than they can handle, and they get the tough cases. So there’s no real incentive for those folks to spend 48 hours [on a case] unless they’re totally dedicated. When you’re talking about the ultimate penalty, you’ve got to have a system that’s ultimately fair and even across the board.
GG: And how did your attitudes change then?
GR: The death penalty in my life, prior to being governor, was something that was abstract. I never was involved personally with anybody that had been sentenced to death, didn’t know any families of anybody sentenced to death. I took a lot for granted. I was never challenged in any debates in all the offices that I ran for. I was never asked about my position on the death penalty. And I never thought about it. About a month after I got elected, my wife and I were watching the news at six o’clock. I see this little guy, Anthony Porter, come out with a Lincoln Stovepipe hat, long curly hair, and a big grin on his face. He’d just spent 15 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And he almost was executed. That’s when I gave myself a good deal of time to think about it and started the [moratorium on the death penalty]. But I did execute one person while I was governor, and it’s one of those haunting things that I’ll have to live with the rest of my life. . . .
I would suppose that if I’d never been governor, I probably would still be a strong supporter of the death penalty.
GG: So if it takes such close contact with the death penalty to get people to change their views, where do you see change coming from?
GR: I’ll tell you where I think it’s coming from: young people. That’s why I try and address law students. I was out to California. I’ve been at Brown, Harvard, Yale. Young people have a different thought about the death penalty. At least that’s my perception. And of course they have different thoughts about a lot of things. And I think that’s where the change is going to come and the abolition will come from.
GG: Why do you think that is? Do you think the younger generation’s values are really so different?
GR: Well, I don’t think there’s any question there’s some different values. You know, I’m 70 years old, so I lived in a time that was a lot different. I see a lot of values that are entirely different from what I grew up with. So I think the young people have a different thought about the death penalty. Now they want to be tough on crime, they don’t want crime. But maybe this is a place where they’re a little more compassionate. They’re a little more understanding of why people do the things that they do. At least I think I see that that’s the case. Will I ever see in my lifetime the abolition of the death penalty? I doubt it. But I think that we can make some progress to at least lessen the odds of executing an innocent person.
GG: So where do you go from here?
GR: I honestly believe that we need to have a moratorium on the whole death penalty situation and look at it. If Illinois has the problems that we’ve got, or had and still have, with our system, then I can’t believe that other states haven’t got the same situation.
GG: And you don’t think people are fully aware of that?
GG: They want a fair system. They don’t want a lopsided system. And they’re not involved with it, so they don’t know how lopsided it really is.
GG: Do you think if most people saw what you’ve seen, they’d come to similar conclusions about the death penalty?
GR: Sure. That’s why we need to study it.