Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s blanket death sentence commutation comes too close to the 30th anniversary of legalized abortion to pass up making just a few observations.
There’s plenty to say just about that reprieve for 167 killers. Ryan’s 2000 execution moratorium followed exoneration of 13 death row inmates. No one, including Ryan, can point to the actual execution of an actually innocent person. These exonerations meant our criminal justice system, with its layers of due process and appeals, protections and guarantees, worked.
After declaring the moratorium, Ryan promised he would not issue a blanket pardon or a blanket commutation. He would honor the critical element of our criminal justice system, trial by jury, and not simply overturn their decisions in all cases in one fell swoop. Instead, he said he would consider each case individually, on its own merits, to make sure that only the guilty would be executed.
That, after all, is why the Supreme Court first suspended, then authorized, the death penalty in the 1970s. In Gregg v. Georgia, the court wrote in 1976 that “the punishment of death does not invariably violate the Constitution.” The Constitution, in fact, references that punishment no less than four times. Justice Potter Stewart wrote that implementing the death penalty properly requires considering “the specific circumstances of the crime” and “the characteristics of the person who committed the crime.”
In other words, the Constitution requires individualized treatment of death penalty cases. Which is why, I think, Ryan promised no blanket commutations. Yet on Jan. 11, he issued a blanket commutation for all inmates on Illinois’ death row. In his speech at Northwestern University’s law school, where he announced this stunning injustice, Ryan repeatedly asked, “Is that fair? Is that right?” In that same speech, Ryan admitted he “misled” the victims’ families by telling them he would not issue a blanket commutation. Well, is that fair?
Ryan violated the very principle of individualized justice at the heart of our criminal justice system. How fair is that? Why should it require an individual trial, before an individual jury, with individualized evidence, to impose the death sentence but simply a blanket, one-size-fits-all stroke of the pen to avoid it? Is that fair?
And the jarring contrast between this blanket reprieve for guilty killers and next week’s anniversary of the Supreme Court’s blanket revocation of the right to life is stomach-churning. Ryan said all murderers must avoid their rightful punishment because one innocent person might be killed. Yet we know, to a moral certainty, down to an individual person, that every single child killed by abortion was innocent.
In his Jan. 11 speech, Ryan quoted Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun: “I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” Only months from retirement on Feb. 22, 1994, Justice Blackmun wrote those words, intoning that he was “morally and intellectually obligated” to conclude that “the death penalty experiment has failed.” No combination of rules, regulations and safeguards could, he said, ensure that we will not “wrongly kill some defendants.” Letting the many we know to be guilty escape their just punishment of death was simply the price to pay because life is so precious.
Need I say it? Justice Blackmun authored Roe v. Wade, which created the right to kill innocent children. Those guilty murderers for whom Blackmun and Ryan are so sympathetic enjoyed the protections of the Constitution. In Roe, Blackmun said that preborn children enjoy no constitutional protections at all. Those guilty murderers benefited from due process, multiple appeals, lawyers and advocates. Innocent preborn children have nothing.
Ryan commuted the death sentence for every killer on death row. Blackmun, the justice whose piety Ryan quoted so seriously, made sure that no one, not even their fathers, could step in and commute the death sentence for little children. Ryan said he started thinking about the death penalty because he was “concerned about innocence” but “came to care above all about fairness.” Abortion kills the innocent with not even an attempt at fairness. Is that right?
Ryan said that “publicly sanctioned killing has cheapened human life and dignity.” Indeed. Any nation, any leader, anyone who would wring hands over the possibility of executing the innocent but ignore the certainty of executing the innocent has done more than that.