To many of its supporters, the death penalty helps balance the scales of justice. But on Jan. 31, Republican Gov. George H. Ryan–”a longtime proponent–”imposed a moratorium on executions and promised to review the state’s capital punishment system.
“Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate,” he said.
No other state has ever halted executions for a systemic review. Ryan’s decision came after Cook County State’s Attorney Richard A. Devine’s office announced Jan. 18 it would not retry Steve Manning for a 1990 murder he has always denied. By a 13-to-12 count, Manning boosted the tally of exonerated Death Row inmates to more than the number of state executions since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977.
Critics accused Ryan of grandstanding to distract the public from allegations of corruption during his tenure as secretary of state. But in March the governor appointed 14 legal experts, including former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon and Cook County Public Defender Rita Fry, to a commission to conduct the death penalty review. The commission has not released a final report.
But the governor may have uttered his most telling remarks months after the moratorium made international news. During Ryan’s September trade mission to Mexico, President Ernesto Zedillo repeatedly praised Ryan’s “courage” in halting state executions. Ryan, the Chicago Sun-Times reports, responds: “I may not go back to the death penalty as long as I’m governor.” Several weeks later, Ryan moved even further in a speech at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. The state might need a new crime-fighting scorecard, he suggested.
“I want to tell you, I’m not only concerned about the death penalty, but I’m concerned about the whole criminal code we have in Illinois,” reports the Reader. “There is without question a lot of people sitting in prisons today that didn’t commit the crimes they are there for. They may not be facing the death penalty, but we’ve shortened their lives by putting them in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.” “Frankly,” he told a reporter after the address, “I think it’s pretty bad.”