January 24, 2003

Ryan's decision not admirable

Josh Steinman's article on former Illinois Governor George Ryan's decision to empty death row ("Ryan Makes the Right Decision," January 17) is saturated with statistics and empty praise, but it fails to provide a commonsense look at Ryan's actions. Steinman falls back on the oft-repeated claims constantly parroted by liberals opposed to the death penalty: that the death penalty is racist (as "proven" by numbers related to the ratio of blacks on death row to the number of blacks who commit murders) and that the death penalty is not a deterrent to further crime (as "proven" by more convoluted numbers). In reality, these claims, as well as the statistics that are used to support them, is controversial, and vary according to what special interest group spouts them out. However, Steinman's fondness for numbers impedes his understanding of crucial, non-numerical facts of the former governor's history.

George Ryan is no "courageous ideologue," nor is he a "legislator of true greatness." He also never "stuck to [his] guns" because of a "self-conception rooted in the position [he] takes." The George Ryan I am familiar with, as a lifelong resident of Illinois (and not of another state, as Steinman is), is an old school, backroom, scandal-plagued politician who paid his dues with bribery and other felonies in order to ascend to the state's highest office. I doubt those prosecuting his cronies (and hopefully the governor himself in the future) in the "license for bribes" scandal think of him as courageous, nor do the families of local prison workers he laid off in order to open a new prison in his hometown.

George Ryan is not courageous, but corrupt. Emptying death row had nothing to do with ideals or courage, but everything to do with saving face. Ryan was leaving office as a disgraced man with an approval rating under 20 percent. Making himself a hero for the anti-death penalty camp both in the United States and abroad, was a sure way to deflect attention from his myriad of scandals, and focus attention on his "courage" and "ideals." Ryan's underhanded ploy has seemingly worked, as even intelligent young men like Mr. Steinman have bought into the dirty political lies.

Illinois's death penalty system certainly has had problems in the past. Several men sentenced to death were eventually released, and this is clearly a problem. However, to my knowledge, Illinois has never executed an innocent man. The fact that these 13 exonerated men were freed lends testament to how the system, although problematic, actually is working. Unfortunately, these men were subjected to years of undeserved prison sentences, and this is something that has to be straightened out. However, a blanket clemency is not the right way to mend any problems within the system.

With his decision, Ryan undermined the entire state court system, not to mention the legislature, using power in ways reminiscent of despots of old. The Illinois court system is not nearly as unjust, unfair, and corrupt as people make it out to be. Undermining this court system suggests that all decisions it makes are useless, and should not be taken seriously. This is a dangerous problem. Our nation is a nation of laws and once the bodies that interpret and pass judgment on those laws are made null, a variety of problems can erupt.

George Ryan entered politics more than 50 years ago, and during that time has paid his dues in exchange for power. After those dues were made public, he attempted to save face by making a dangerous and downright ridiculous decision. Up until a few years ago, Ryan, a Republican, was one of the state's staunchest supporters of capital punishment. Suddenly, at the same moment that his scandals began their run as public fodder, he had a change of heart, and became a hero for those opposed to the death penalty. This is no courageous ideologue who sticks to his guns, as Steinman claims. George Ryan is a piranha, a predator who preys on popularity and changes like a chameleon when the colors of public opinion shift. He is no hero for Mr. Steinman and his ilk. He is no advocate for peace and is not deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize. He is a disgrace to this state, and I, for one, am thankful that his time is up.