Ryan's death-penalty action went too far

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Hundreds of Illinois families are reeling after learning that those who brutally killed their loved ones won't face the ultimate punishment that had been awaiting them on death row.

The blow came from former governor George Ryan, delivered backhandedly this month as he prepared to leave office. Calling his state's death-penalty process "arbitrary and capricious, and therefore immoral," he commuted 167 death-row inmates' sentences.

True, the Illinois justice system has had its share of problems. Ryan halted executions three years ago after courts found 13 Illinois death-row inmates had been wrongfully convicted since capital punishment resumed in that state in 1977. And recently, just before commuting all the sentences, he fully pardoned four death-row inmates he said had been tortured into making confessions.

It is unimaginable for Americans to face death for crimes they didn't commit. If such things were going on, truly there had to be a change.

But what about the cases where the evidence of guilt was clear? One convict profiled in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch raped and killed a young mother in front of her beaten husband and was caught with her jewelry in his pocket only blocks from the scene of the crime. The evidence found on the woman's body matched him as well.

Was justice not served properly when this man was sentenced to death? Was there a problem in this case that needed to be rectified by Gov. Ryan?

Death-penalty opponents are applauding Ryan for his actions, but let's look at their champion. Since he took office in 1999, Ryan has been the subject of a federal investigation into trading drivers' licenses for bribes when he was secretary of state. His former chief of staff is on trial for racketeering in Chicago. Ryan is an embarrassment to the state and his own Republican party.

Perhaps most cowardly of all, he waited until two days before he left office to take this action.

The two sides of the death-penalty issue can argue all day long about why each is correct, but one fact is indisputable: George Ryan was not the man to make this decision. With a horrendous abuse of his power, he stepped on the state's elected officials and judicial system.

It is up to state's attorneys and the Illinois Legislature to come up with a way to override Ryan's decision. Only their success at doing so will bring comfort to families feeling Ryan's sting.

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