Courage in politics is rare. On January 11, Governor George Ryan made a courageous decision. Against the wishes of the Republican Party, and even the incoming Democratic governor, Rod Blagojevich, he pardoned all 167 Illinois death row inmates. Taking the words of Justice Harry Blackmun on the death penalty, "The legislature couldn't reform it. Lawmakers won't repeal it. But I will not stand for it. I must act."
Three years ago Ryan called for a moratorium on all executions in Illinois. Since that time he conducted a full review of the system in the state. A report concluded that, since its reinstatement in Illinois in the late 1970s (the Supreme Court threw out every state's death penalty in the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, forcing states to re-evaluate and then rewrite their laws on capital punishment), Illinois had executed 12 prisoners. Thirteen individuals on death row had been exonerated. Only two percent of all convicted murderers in the state received the death penalty, and it was handed down five times more frequently in areas in Illinois outside the city of Chicago. Half of all death penalty convictions had been overturned on appeal. Two-thirds of all death row inmates were black (the fraction of murders committed by blacks is significantly less than that), and 35 black death row inmates had been convicted by all-white juries. Forty-six of the convictions hinged on the testimony of fellow inmates, whose assistance in securing a conviction usually resulted in reduced sentences for themselves. These facts, Ryan said, represent the "demon of error" that haunts the capital punishment system.
The reason that the death penalty is also called "capital punishment" is that it is the highest penalty. As Justice William Brennan said in the case Gregg v. Georgia, "the death penalty, unnecessarily to promote the goal of deterrence or to further any legitimate notion of retribution, is an excessive penalty forbidden by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments." Without the advanced statistics we have today, Brennan's first assertion, that the death penalty doesn't deter murder, was an unproven claim. Today we know it as fact. Murder rates do not rise in states that abolish the death penalty; in fact it is the exact opposite. In states that have a death penalty, there are approximately eight murders per 100,000 people; in states without the death penalty, four.
The 14th Amendment states, "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States. Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." As Brennan argued, since capital punishment is the "ultimate penalty," it can only be imposed with ultimate justice. This kind of justice--perfect justice--does not exist. Errors can and have been made. Innocent men and women have been executed. As Ryan and Brennan pointed out, life in prison is not an irrevocable punishment: death is. Ryan overcame his own personal feelings of fear (a next-door neighbor of his was murdered when he was younger) to make a decision based on fact, justice, and truth. Too often, politics is an identity game. "Pro-Life," "Anti-War," "Libertarian," and "Environmentalist," are all labels we understand and often praise or denigrate based on our emotions and experiences. But what happens when you realize that the views you hold are incorrect? Ideologues stick to their guns because their self-conception is rooted in the positions they take. Legislators of true greatness are able to realize that their purpose as public figures isn't to further their cause, it is to serve humanity as a whole. And to do that, sometimes you need to admit you were wrong.
"He deserves a Nobel Peace Prize," a friend of mine said at lunch the other day.