Like fireworks, though, when the audacity of the act faded, there was little more than smoke left. Because in the end, George Ryan screwed up the task at hand, and then half-assed a salvage job. He polarized when he should have directed the debate and built consensus; he was cowardly and silent when he should have been vocal and persistent; and instead of working for the past year toward more substantial reform of a death-penalty system that nobody doubts is broken, he chose a short-term fix as he slinked out of town.
So what are we left with? More than 150 people who were on death row will now live their natural lives in prison, and prosecutors will soon start re-stocking Illinois' Death Row.
I don't mean to diminish the enormity of what Ryan did. Certainly, his actions have had a tremendous impact - for better or worse - on the people who have escaped capital punishment, their families, and the families of their victims.
Yet there's still the longer view: The Illinois death-penalty system that put 13 innocent men (17, if you count those Ryan pardoned) on Death Row is still in place, and I don't see anybody rushing to dismantle or reform it.
And the ill will generated by Ryan's blanket commutation will surely give rise to a new bloodlust among the general public (which overwhelmingly supports the death penalty) and elected prosecutors. The size of the backing for the death penalty might not grow, but it will surely become more dogmatic and deep-seated in those who approve of it.
Instead of being an act of courage or conscience, Ryan essentially destroyed the groundwork he's been laying for three years.
In January 2000, Ryan called a moratorium on executions in Illinois, and he followed that up by appointing a 15-member commission to study the state's death-penalty system. The commission delivered its report in spring 2002. The study was thorough, pointing out flaws and making 10 key recommendations for reform, with the stated goal of crafting a system that would be applied equally and fairly, with very little chance of an innocent person being put on Death Row. (See "Debating Death," River Cities' Reader Issue 372, May 1-7, 2002.)
It's difficult to read the report without having your own beliefs about the death penalty challenged, however you feel about it. Supporters of capital punishment don't like that it suggests severely restricting eligibility for the death penalty. Opponents get angry because it still finds a place for lethal injection in state government. Yet its recommendations are so grounded in common sense that they're nearly impossible to argue against. (You can find the report at http://www.idoc.state.il.us/ccp/ccp/reports/commission_report/index.html.)
What Ryan should have done after the report was released on April 15 was spearhead a massive public-education campaign. He could have made a big deal of having a bipartisan team of legislators introduce the reforms as a single package. He could have called town meetings in major metropolitan areas with members of the commission and his administration, talking about the report and the death penalty. The George Ryan Death Penalty Tour - coming soon to a town near you.
Ryan announced in summer 2001 that he wouldn't seek re-election in 2002, and he had no compunction about burning all his bridges to the GOP, so he had no political reason to hold back. But George didn't push a reform effort, which is particularly strange considering how important he claims the death-penalty issue is.
And George the deal-maker - the man renowned for his political acumen - seemingly twisted no arms and called in no favors on the death-penalty issue. He let reform die a lonely death in the legislature.
"I have had also to watch in frustration as members of the Illinois General Assembly failed to pass even one substantive death-penalty reform in the state!" Ryan complained in the January 11 speech in which he commuted the death sentences. "Many people express the desire to have capital punishment. Few, however, seem prepared to address the tough questions that arise when the system fails."
Yet even if Ryan had seen death-penalty reform as a hopeless cause in an election year, he could have set the stage by keeping it in the public eye. Instead, the commission report made a splash when it was released, and anticipation built as Ryan's last days approached. The eight months in between were mostly silent.
The governor offered a reason. "I've been asked why I waited for the last 48 hours before I made this decision," he teased. "There are a lot of reasons, but one was that I wanted to go as far as I could and learn and know as much as I could. But I also thought that I couldn't leave without getting something done. I had to act."
While the decision to commute death sentences might have been made in the final days, Ryan has for at least three years understood the system needed reform. "We then had the dubious distinction of exonerating more men than we had executed," he said. "Thirteen men found innocent, 12 executed. ... How many more cases of wrongful conviction have to occur before we can agree that this system in Illinois is broken?"
Ryan, borrowing from Harry Blackmun, said, "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."
Yet that's exactly what he did. He tinkered, then washed his hands of a system that's no different than the one he's been criticizing.