Ryan's death row decision lets families hang

Posted: Jan 18, 2003 12:00 AM
In 1995, Fedell Caffey murdered a pregnant Debra Evans and her 10-year-old daughter in their home. He and his girlfriend wanted a baby, so they cut Evans' unborn child from her womb and kidnapped it. They also took her 8-year-old son, who they tortured and eventually murdered. Departing Illinois Governor George Ryan let Caffey off death row because, he says, to do otherwise would be "playing God." Lenard Johnson raped two girls, 11 and 13, and sexually assaulted a third, age 7, while he was baby-sitting them. And he murdered an 11-year-old boy with a knife. He was caught holding the knife to one of the girl's throats. Johnson never made any claim to being innocent of his crimes. George Ryan felt it was morally impermissible to keep him on death row because the "demon of error" made it impossible to tell who deserved to stay on death row and who didn't. On Saturday, Ryan commuted the sentences of Johnson and Caffey, as well as all 165 of the other convicts on Illinois' death row. The decision was hailed by the usual opponents of capital punishment as supremely brave and courageous. According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, a University of Illinois professor has concocted the obscene idea of nominating Ryan for the Nobel Peace Prize. Now, it must be noted that this would be Nobelist has federal prosecutors circling him like sharks around a dying whale. The original chum in the water was a bribery scheme by which unqualified drivers bought commercial truck licenses from government officials while Ryan was secretary of state. The charitable defense of Ryan is that he is inept not corrupt. The argument goes like this: Ryan's not a "details man," so he may not have noticed the rampant influence peddling going on all around him. Regardless, Ryan's indictment in the licenses-for-bribes scandal upon leaving office was a metaphysical certainty. And, not surprisingly, many consider his corruption the best explanation for his "mercy." Some say Ryan is trying to divert attention from his own scandals. Others say he wants to rewrite his bio in the history books, from one-term hack to death-penalty abolitionist. These theories have merit, but I'd like to throw in another possibility: jury tampering. Should Ryan ever face a trial by jury, his lawyers could implore the jurors to show the Great Abolitionist some of the mercy he showed to those poor guys on death row. This is why I think Ryan should agree to have any mention of his commutations barred from any trial he may face. After all, if Ryan was acting on pure principle when he let Lenard Johnson and Fedell Caffey off the hook, then his own personal plight should be irrelevant. Ryan's motives matter because as a life-long supporter of capital punishment, he has rationalized his original moratorium on executions, as well as his latest decision, by citing practical arguments. If he'd had a come-to-Jesus moment and declared the taking of life - any life - immoral, that would be more defensible. In his Saturday speech, for example, Ryan declared that the capital punishment system is as "arbitrary as who gets hit by a bolt of lightning." This is simply a gross lie. When Lenard Johnson was caught with a bloody knife to a little girl's throat and the corpse of a little boy nearby, his subsequent arrest, conviction and sentencing were hardly arbitrary. He didn't make it to death row by accident. And this highlights the problem with the pragmatic argument against the death penalty. The fact that some people on death row might be innocent doesn't prove that other convicts are anything but guilty. One can make the same argument about alleged racial disparities. If black murderers are executed disproportionately to white murderers, that's not an argument to execute fewer blacks; it's an argument to execute more whites. But the reality is that such score-keeping is offensive. The correct approach is to take each murder on an individual basis - which is what 167 judges and juries did in the first place. And, still, Ryan could have taken a case-by-case approach to these 167 cases, commuting the sentences of anybody whose guilt was even remotely in question. He calls that option "playing God," when in reality that's his job. Instead, he decides to give reprieves to at least some men he knows for a fact are guilty because of a tiny number he suspects might not be. This isn't an act of courage, it's a copout from doing his job. What would take courage would be for George Ryan to look the surviving members of Debra Evans' family in the eyes and explain why he thinks her murderer should get a reprieve, even though he knows Lenard Johnson is guilty.