10 truths could guide governor on clemency
Eric Zorn, Columnist, Chicago Tribune
December 19, 2002
`I'm not sure about anything at this point."
--Gov. George Ryan, answering questions earlier this week on the capital punishment issue.
The governor's attention and sympathies have been whipsawed lately listening to advocates and opponents of the death penalty while he considers the mass petitions for sentence commutation from the state's condemned prisoners. I can't blame him for feeling at loose ends.
Accordingly, I've produced for Ryan the following list of 10 things he can be sure of:
1. The scorn for you among your detractors is so complete and multifaceted that even if you deny every single request to reduce death sentences to life without parole, they still won't have anything nice to say about you. Their inalterable belief is that every move you've made regarding capital punishment has been part of a cynical attempt to change the subject from the licenses-for-bribes scandal.
2. The cause of death penalty reform, which you hold dear, and death penalty abolition, which you have all but endorsed, will not be further harmed if you commute all 160-some death sentences in Illinois. Yes, I joined the Tribune editorial board in fretting earlier this year that wholesale commutation would prompt such a strong backlash that it would end any chance for legislative reform of the death penalty.
But now it's clear that October's excruciating public hearings have already done that damage. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Springfield recently let you know via their feeble microproposals that they don't buy into the key recommendations of your commission on capital punishment.
3. Your focus, to the point of obsession, on being sure that Illinois never executes an innocent person is commendable, but innocence not the problem that infects the greatest number of capital cases. That problem is inequity.
Though most people believe we sentence only the worst of the worst killers to death, the fact is that with good lawyers, sound legal strategies and a bit of luck, perpetrators of exceedingly heinous murders routinely get life sentences or less, while those with fewer resources and less luck get the needle.
4. You need look no further for an example of inequity than Andrew Kokoraleis, the one inmate whose execution you OKd. He was the youngest member of a gang of four spree killers. The second youngest member, witless mope Eddie Spreitzer, is on Death Row. Meanwhile Andrew's older brother Thomas, another member, is up for parole in 14 years, and the gang's depraved mastermind, Robin Gecht, has a parole date in 2042.
5. The moratorium on executions you declared in 2000 is a popular idea. The next governor and both current and incoming attorneys general support it, as do some 60 percent of the public according to one poll.
6. Blanket commutation is a far less popular idea, but it follows inevitably from the moratorium. After all, if a thorough, case-by-case analysis such as your office is now undertaking is enough to prevent capital injustice, then the moratorium was unnecessary--an attention-getting stunt or knee-jerk overreaction to the discovery of isolated errors.
You could have skeptically reviewed pending executions one by one as final appeals reached your desk. But your stated belief at the time, later underscored by the report of your death penalty commission, was that the system was too malignantly erratic to have faith even in that supposed fail-safe.
7. If you grant selective commutation, you will be saying, in effect, that a careful governor can go back over old cases and neatly separate those convicts who deserve the death penalty from those who don't. If you believe that, go ahead. But you'll be retroactively invalidating the moratorium and the work of your commission and will be saying instead that the death penalty system was never "broken" as you've maintained, it just needed one extra layer of review.
8. You'll grease the ride to the death house for any inmate whose commutation petition you deny. Future governors will say to themselves, "If George Ryan didn't have doubts about killing this one, why should I lose any sleep over it?"
9. Reducing a sentence to life-without-parole is a compromise with human frailty, not an act of mercy. No prisoner so sentenced has ever been paroled.
10. The reason history favors those who do the right thing under great pressure is that it's so damn hard.