Capital Punishment

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

January 29, 2003


            I love C-Span.  Even though it can be boring at times, they just turn the camera on and let it run. There are no commercials, no commentary, and no interruptions.

            That is why I was grateful to C-span when they played the entire January 11 statement Governor George H. Ryan of Illinois. For nearly an hour, in a speech at Northwestern Law School, Ryan explained his decision to commute the sentence of 167 death row inmates.

These 167 inmates were NOT released from jail, as some people later said on other news reports. Their sentences were commuted (changed). For 164 of them their sentences were changed from death to life in prison, without possibility of parole. As the governor noted, many of the inmates would consider this a much harsher sentence than death.

 The other 3 were given sentences of 40 years imprisonment, to be consistent with the sentences given their co-defendants in the original trials. There did not seem to be any good reason why one defendant was sentence to die and another was sentence to 40 years. The governor quoted Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who said “The imposition of the death penalty ... is as freakish and arbitrary as who gets hit by a bolt of lightning.”

These 167 commutations by Ryan were in addition to the 17 death row inmates he had pardoned (released from jail) during his one term as governor.

Ryan did an about face on the death penalty because he began to see that there was a high likelihood that the innocent might be executed. He entered the governor’s office a law and order Republican, who had voted for the death penalty as a legislator because he knew it was politically popular. He left office saying, “I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” 

Of the nearly 200 people on death row during his term, 17 of them were proven innocent. The governor said, “Seventeen exonerated death row inmates is nothing short of a catastrophic failure.”

Thirteen of the 17 cases Ryan pardoned had been proven innocent through the investigative work of Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess and his students. The students found that either later confessions or DNA evidence exonerated the prisoners.

In four of the 17 cases evidence showed that their confessions had been tortured out of them by Chicago police, who were later removed from the police force for brutality.

Ryan noted that other people had either been exonerated before he was governor. He asked, “How many more cases of wrongful conviction have to occur before all agree that the system is broken?”  He also noted what has been shown to be true in my own state of Maryland, that the accused is many times more likely to get the death sentence if they are black or if the victim is white.

What Ryan did was an act of courage and conscience.

Unlike President Bill Clinton, Ryan was not pardoning rich friends and political supporters. Those with commuted sentences will still be punished by a life in prison. Society will still be protected from evil-doers.

For three years the Governor had waited for the legislator to reform the death penalty system. They did nothing.

The governor’s decision drew applause from some and outrage from some others. For Catholics it was the fruit of years of pro-life work against the death penalty. 

At the end of his speech the Governor looked both fatigued and relieved. It was as if a great weight had been lifted.

He had clearly agonized over his decision.  He said that he and his staff had spent many sleepless nights reviewing the cases of the inmates on death row, but “I will sleep well tonight.”

So will we Governor Ryan, knowing that there are public officials who follow the injunction of the prophet Micah, to “seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”