Illinois Gov. George Ryan, in the last passing days of his first and only term, saved the best for last.
He sent shock waves across the nation when he issued four pardons to men sitting on the Condemned Units of the state's prison system, opening the doors of the dungeon for four men, one who sat in the shadow of the gallows for nearly two decades. Speaking in a soft Midwestern accent, his words were as damning as the death sentences that his orders negated: "The system is broken."
With these orders, he ushered four men-Stanley Howard, Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson and Leroy Orange-from the darkest corners of the land into the light. Quoting a tale of that famed Illinoisan, Lincoln, he recalled the job of the nation's chief executive, who, reviewing execution orders for those who were convicted of violating the military code during the Civil War, asked one of his generals why one young man had no letters in his file from any who wished his life spared. The general, shrugging his shoulders matter-of-factly, said, "He's got no friends," Lincoln, lifting his pen, remarked, "He's got one friend," and pardoned the man from the clutches of the hangman. Ryan said those four denizens of Death Row, each having been subjected to police torture, falsified confessions, prosecutorial misdonduct, and judicial blindness to these vile transgressions, had one friend, and decided to cut the Gordian knot by issuing full pardons to the four, and proving a friend to men who had few real friends in the dark deserted abode of death. Before day's end, three of the four walked away from the closed cell of state repression, into the fresh air of a windy Chicago, and freedom.
By so doing, Ryan has dealt a serious, crippling blow to the state system of death, and the inability of the dignitaries and officials of the system to cure the serious problems of the death penalty was shown in sharp and stark relief.
It is fitting that Ryan, a oneterm, embattled politico and a non-lawyer ("I'm a pharmacist," he repeatedly explained) would be the one to solve these deep and troubling problems. It is equally as fitting that the problems of the Illinois death system came to light not through the, members of the Bar but through the meanderings of students of journalism, whose investigations led to the ultimate conclusion voiced by Ryan some years later: "The system is broken."
Hours after his unprecedented announcement of the pardon package, Ryan's office would announce another earth-shattering event: the full commutation of every man on Death Row in the Prairie State. By the end of the week, 167 folks would no longer be on Death Row.
Elected as a conservative Republican who "never gave a moment's thought" to the rightness or morality of the death penalty, Ryan would be the last politician one would expect would strike down the nation's seventh largest Death Row.
With a hoarse voice, his nervousness evident in his fidgety presentation, the one-term governor struck a mighty blow against the Death System in America.
Exercising a breadth of vision that is truly remarkable in an American sitting (albeit departing) politician, Ryan spoke of the problems facing not just those condemned to death, but in the processes, prosecutions and judgments affecting those condemned to "life." His words were a rare gubernatorial recognition of the deficits in the system entire: "The system has proven itself to be wildly inaccurate, unjust, unable to separate the innocent from the guilty... and racist."
His commutation of over 150 death sentences unquestionably stays the cold hand of death, but it does not address the injustices that led many to Death Row, nor that keeps them confined on "Life Row," for those problems, those deep cracks in the system, remain.
It is tragically true that, as Ryan charges, "The system is broken." The bitter truth is that his efforts, while undeniably noble and unquestionably historic, do not fix the mess.
To his credit, Ryan assembled a blue-ribbon panel to examine the state's death system, and the commission, after three years, came to a political, yet systematic, conclusion: "The system is broken." The commission, composed of prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers and scholars, joined in the report, and issued some 85 recommendations to "fix" the system, including the recording of confessions from beginning to end, the end of "jailhouse confessions" (which are notoriously unreliable, yet influential to unknowing jurors), and a host of others. The legislature opted to ignore the recommendations, just as the state's highest judiciary chose to ignore many of the most blatant injustices, and Ryan, the "non-lawyer," felt compelled to act.
If the system is broken, how can the system fix the system?
Ryan's very extraordinary act seems to suggest that it cannot. For while those four men are free of unjust convictions, are they the "only" four innocents on the state's large Death Row, or larger Life Row? That seems unlikely.
In another sense, as the underlying system remains tightly embedded in place, what of those to come? How many years will other innocents suffer in the suffocating holds of steel and brick slave ships (prisons) before another scandal threatens the stability of the system?
Like the notorious cycle of police corruption cases that plagues U.S. cities like New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and-yes-Chicago, the problem isn't fixed, but passed on to later administrations.
It seems an abolition movement must take this, not as a final victory, but as a first step, of a systematic battle for real change.
We may all agree that the system is broken. But that mere agreement does not insure that that which is broken will indeed be fixed.
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