George Ryan: A Flawed Man Taking on a Flawed System

grGeorge Ryan is a hero tainted by scandal. As governor of Illinois, Mr Ryan followed in the wake of two of his three predecessors and was convicted, in 2006, to over six years in prison for taking bribes. He was released last year and has since retired, in shame, from public view.

Though Mr Ryan’s misbehaviour as a public official and his betrayal of the public trust placed in him remains inexcusable, he is also responsible for saving almost two hundred lives. While in office, Governor Ryan singlehandedly put a stop to all executions. Two days before leaving office, he commuted the sentences of 167 inmates on death row to life terms arguing that the death penalty could not be administered fairly. Under his governorship, thirteen people sentenced to die had their convictions overturned after Governor Ryan allowed new evidence to be presented to the courts. All were released.

Mr Ryan’s firm stance against the death penalty, a rarity in the United States even at the best of times, saw him nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. His moratorium on the carrying out of the death penalty in Illinois also encouraged a national debate on the issue. This debate, often akin to a dialogue between the hard of hearing, is raging to this day.

The death penalty is on the books in 32 of the 50 US States. Both the federal and military legal systems carry provisions for capital punishment. In 2013, the country saw 39 people executed. The total number of felons put to death since 1977, when capital punishment was reinstated after a five year reprieve, amounts to 1,379.

“Mr Ryan’s firm stance against the death penalty, a rarity in the United States even at the best of times, saw him nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.”

A significant number of innocent people have been executed as well. As a human endeavour, justice is subject to fallibility. The fatal consequences of inevitable miscarriages of justice are what motivated the then-Illinois governor to put a stop to the executions. A famous case was that of Anthony Porter, a Chicago gang member convicted for first-degree murder, who spent fifteen years on death row and came to within 50 hours of being executed.

Just two days before Mr Porter’s execution his lawyers obtained a stay on the grounds that their client may have been mentally retarded. This argument kicked-in the Eight Amendment which, among other things, prohibits the execution of the mentally disabled. Anthony Porter was repeatedly tested and was found to have an IQ score of 51. He was unable to grasp the severity of his crime and the motivation of his punishment.

Alone among the western industrialised nations in carrying out the death penalty, the United States finds itself in the company of China, Iran and other less democratically inclined nations when it comes to the number of executions and incarceration rates.

Governor George Ryan, though very much a failure as an administrator and quite unfit for public office, must nonetheless be credited with gathering the courage to not just question a seriously flawed justice system, but to stop it from putting possibly innocent people to death. Then as now, questioning the death penalty in the United States is no mean undertaking since most Americans do not take kindly to politicians who dare question cherished, but outdated, notions of frontier justice.


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