Gov. Ryan and the death penalty

Posted: Jan 14, 2003 12:00 AM
The charitable thing, naturally, is to assume Illinois Gov. George Ryan's sincerity. If the outgoing governor tells us he will "sleep well tonight," having commuted the sentences of all 167 inmates on death row, who are we, his countrymen, to say he wouldn't? The question, possibly, is why should he have slept well? One hundred sixty-seven convicted murderers spared, by gubernatorial decree, the fate they dealt to their victims! Gov. Ryan invites us to consider what a wide, grand act of mercy he has committed. The quality of that mercy deserves to come in for close scrutiny -- notwithstanding how hard it is to hear over the hosannas of the anti-death penalty crowd. What goes on here? Officially, indignation goes on. Massive intervention in the face of grievous error goes on. Thirteen death-row inmates, during Ryan's term as governor, were exonerated and set free. What outsider is to say that none of the 167 whose sentences Ryan commuted had likewise been unjustly accused and sentenced? It very well might have been so. If so, the governor had to do something. What he chose to do was grossly illogical: the reverse of the legendary old Chinese procedure, which was to whack off the heads of all possible suspects in order to be sure of getting the right culprit. Ryan, to save another possibly innocent party from execution (though no innocent party is known to have died lately at the Illinois executioner's hands), yanked scores of the patently guilty off death row. "Our capital system," he explained, "is haunted by the demon of human error: error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die." Well, right. The world is filled with error. It is how things are. Politicians err. Generals err. Boy, do businessmen err! -- as Bernie Ebbers and Ken Lay might remind us in an unguarded moment, with their lawyers away at the water cooler. All the same, Gov. George Ryan has come out against error. His stand involves intellectual contortion. The governor, who as a legislator voted for Illinois' present death penalty law, says, in effect, nobody deserves to die for anything -- got that? -- no matter how bad or awful or heinous the offense. That would include the Washington-area snipers. It would include John Wilkes Booth and Osama bin Laden. As we're always noticing, there's no zealot like a convert. But why are we having this perverse conversation in the first place? Would it be because something really is out of whack with an assumption thousands of years old -- to wit, that death is the indicated penalty for murderers? Or would it be because something in our moral makeup has come unstuck? If so, what would that thing be? It might be the capacity for acknowledging evil -- and for punishing evil in an appropriate way. That could account for the daintiness that exists in much of society regarding capital punishment, a k a, in those circles, "state-sanctioned murder." DNA technology has aided criminal justice authorities in cleaning up past errors, such as those committed in Illinois. But error-horror isn't at the heart of the capital punishment debate. Adversaries of the death penalty are happy for any excuse to discredit the historic notion of a life for a life. A sense of proportion just isn't their long suit. What frustrates them, in their inability to eradicate the death penalty, is the larger public's inability to see what they are talking about. Polls show seven out of 10 Americans in favor of capital punishment. How dare they? Don't they know about Error? What they might just know about, and their opponents not, is moral symmetry. The families of the victims of those whose sentences Gov. Ryan commuted know about moral symmetry. A loved one has died; the murderer lives on. What the victim no longer has -- life -- the killer hugs to himself. Gov. Ryan and his claque should expect this conversation to go on and on. It isn't about error. It's about justice.