Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Saturday, January 11, 2003  

In perhaps the boldest ever step by a politician in condemning capital punishment in the United States, outgoing Illinois governor George Ryan has commuted the sentences of every man and woman on death row in his state.

"In one sweep, Governor Ryan, a Republican, spared the lives of 163 men and 4 women who have served a collective 2,000 years for the murders of more than 250 people. His bold move was seen as the most significant statement questioning capital punishment since the Supreme Court struck down states' old death penalty laws in 1972. It seemed sure to secure Mr. Ryan's legacy as a leading critic of state-sponsored executions even as he faces possible indictment in a corruption scandal that stopped him from seeking re-election.

" 'The facts that I have seen in reviewing each and every one of these cases raised questions not only about the innocence of people on death row, but about the fairness of the death penalty system as a whole,' Governor Ryan said this afternoon. 'Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error: error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.' [Excerpts, page 22.]


"The governor said that even his wife, Lura Lynn, was angry and disappointed at his decision. But after several months of intense lobbying by both sides and exhaustive review of case files, Governor Ryan said, he was left with Justice Blackmun's famous declaration in a 1994 dissent, 'I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.'

"Governor Ryan told the sympathetic crowd: 'The Legislature couldn't reform it, lawmakers won't repeal it, and I won't stand for it — I must act. Because our three-year study has found only more questions about the fairness of the sentencing, because of the spectacular failure to reform the system, because we have seen justice delayed for countless death row inmates with potentially meritorious claims, because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious — and therefore immoral.'


"Governor Ryan, a pharmacist who was among the Illinois legislators who voted in 1977 to revive the death penalty, acknowledged in his speech the unlikelihood of his crusade. But when he found himself at the helm of a state that had conducted 12 executions and exonerated 13 death row inmates, one of whom came within 48 hours of the electric chair, Mr. Ryan called a moratorium on capital punishment."

An attempt to divert attention from his corruption scandal? Only the most cynical would say that is the driving force behind this bold strike. No, Governor Ryan has simply come to the realisation that anyone who looks rationally and levelly at the death penalty must come to: capital punishment is wrong. It is almost always underlined by a desire not for justice but for revenge; it is arbitrary, unfair (even discriminatory), cruel, irreversible, does not deter crime nor improve public safety, and in some cases its existence has even been shown to increase the crime rate. It is also a huge economic burden on the state and is often even more costly that incarceration.

Any nation that is serious about building an enlightened, peaceful and civilised society must come to the realisation that endorsing killing to solve social ills sets the worst possible example for its citizenry. Caribbean governments would do wonderfully well to realise this, instead of fuming at the Privy Council for not allowing them to carry out hangings, and rushing to set up a Caribbean Court of Justice, which they desire solely to be able to carry out hangings and be seen as "doing something" about crime and hence score cheap political points.

Governor Ryan has stood up and shown that he has the courage of his convictions and I, for one, applaud him for it. If only we had a few Ryans in power in T&T: leaders truly worthy of the title.

posted by Jonathan | 9:15 PM 0 comments


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