January 12, 2003 in Current Events

Tinkering With The Machinery of Death

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While lounging in bed yesterday afternoon, I got the chance to listen and watch the outgoing Republican Governor give a speech to University of Northwestern Law School:Center for Wrongful Conviction. He was trying to explain why he was commuting the sentences of all those on dead row here in Illinois. Governor Ryan’s reason for the blanket action was that “our capital punishment system is haunted by the demon of error – error in determining guilt, error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.” True, but I think most would have preferred if he had decided on an individual basis instead of commuting the sentences of all 167 prisoners. Surely, not all of them are innocent.
Some would argue that he probably did it to draw away attention himself as there are allegations that government employees were deployed illegally on campaigns and contracts were traded for contributions while he was Illinois Secretary of State. These charges are thought to have prevented him from running for a second term as Governor. But I’m not sure about that. Three years ago he placed a moratorium on the death penalty. Then he commissioned an extensive study of the issue which found more failures in the system. So maybe he did have a complete change of heart and really beliefs as he said: “I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.”
It should be interesting to see what happens next here in Illinois and across the country. The Democratic governor-elect, Rod Blagojevich is in favor of reinstating the death penalty. In addition, prosecutors are looking for ways to challenge Governor Ryan’s action. Not much will probably come of that as governors have broad, virtually unchecked constitutional powers for pardons and clemency.
Hopefully, the result of this will be that there will be serious debate about the death penalty. As Governor Ryan pointed out, journalism students should not be the ones responsible for figuring out who really is guilty or innocent. The system needs to be reformed.

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