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Old 01-13-2003, 12:36 PM
softheart softheart is offline
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Default Ill. governor elevates justice by clearing death row

Ill. governor elevates justice by clearing death row


Never before has a governor overturned 156 death sentences in a single
end-of-term blast. So when departing George Ryan commuted the sentence of
every Illinois death-row inmate Saturday, he assured himself a place in
the nation's memory banks and a prominent role in a furious new fight
over the nation's broken death-penalty machine.

The day before, he had also pardoned 4 others, whose confessions were
extracted under torture. But the commutations matter most. By scrapping
every death sentence, Ryan has handed down a breathtaking indictment of
the capital punishment system in Illinois. After 3 years of effort, the
Republican governor, himself a former death-penalty advocate, could see
no way to fix it, or to stomach its potential for error.

Illinois' system is so cracked that more death-row inmates have been
exonerated, 17, than executed, 13. But Ryan's decision promises to
benefit the citizens of Illinois more than death row's inmates.

The inmates now will be required to share a cell and work inside a prison
that will contain most of them for the rest of their lives. They will
lose access to the mandatory legal review of their sentences and to the
legal experts who provide them extraordinary appellate help. Once special
cases with special perks, the inmates now become just more graying faces
in a sallow, sullen crowd.

By contrast, the future is brighter for the rest of the state's
residents. Illinois' legal system is, momentarily anyway, free from the
worst examples of justice soured by racism, incompetence and deceit.

By clearing the decks, Illinois has a unique chance to reform its
death-penalty system without worrying about those who have already been
partly processed.

At the same time, the state will save money that could otherwise be spent
on roads, schools and even more prisons. Post-conviction legal expenses
can cost a state tens of millions of wasted dollars. In Illinois, 67% of
all capital convictions are eventually reversed. Of those that are
retried, 70% to 80% result in sentences less than death.

Eventually, Ryan's decision could even prove a mercy for the families and
friends of victims. Many are furious over his decision, and, certainly,
their desire for vengeance deserves respect. Yet the death penalty rarely
provides satisfaction. Most convictions are eventually reversed. And it
takes on average 10 to 12 years, during which survivors continue to pin
their hopes for closure on the unlikely prospect of death.

Ryan's act of conscience provides only a brief window. State prosecutors
will still seek the death penalty. Some will win it. But in this moment
of clear air, the ill wisdom of the death penalty the harm it inflicts on
justice, society and survivors is illuminated. This is especially so in
contrast with the practical alternative: life without parole, which
offers the same certainty of criminal punishment and benefit to public
safety at a fraction of the cost, care, risk and delay.

Illinois ranks about in the middle of death-penalty states when it comes
to reversal rates. The other state to implement a moratorium and
undertake a systematic review, Maryland, also has found deep flaws. In
both states, incoming governors vow to support the death penalty. But
that choice is driven by politics, not pragmatics. The practical solution
is Ryan's. End the death penalty. Get on with life.
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