There are two ways to look at George Ryan’s decision to empty out Illinois‘ death row: as a desperate act or as a heroic one.

My mother, who served alongside Ryan in the state Legislature, believes the former. Over the course of a decade in the ’70s and early ‘80s, she witnessed time and again the destructive effects of his unprincipled backroom deals on socially progressive causes. She is particularly bitter about his role as speaker of the House in the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was her raison d’etre and whose defeat she lays squarely at his politically opportunistic feet. (The death of the ERA cemented his conservative credentials and got him all but anointed lieutenant governor.)

It‘s not just my mom. Anyone in Illinois can tell you Ryan’s a scoundrel. Before he was elected governor in 1998, Ryan served as secretary of state, and from the looks of it, greed and ambition were his only compass. In addition to swapping contracts and leases for vacations, favors and cash and then trying to cover it up, Ryan‘s staff took campaign bribes in exchange for trucking licenses for unqualified drivers. A crash involving one of those drivers killed six children. An ongoing fraud and racketeering probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office has led to the conviction of 51 Ryan staffers and associates.

In the midst of this tsunami of scandals, his political career ruined, Ryan got religion and declared the death penalty unfair. His hubris — as a conservative Republican betraying his constituents for his own ends — brings to mind F.W. de Klerk. Rather than continue presiding over a South Africa in which blacks were routinely tortured and imprisoned and endure the ongoing economic and social censure of much of the rest of the world, de Klerk freed Nelson Mandela and dismantled apartheid.

In both cases the gravity of the act supersedes the motivation. Ryan has exercised the highest possible power of his office, granting life in prison to 167 men who, by law, were supposed to die. The comparison may be a bit grandiose, but the fact that such dramatic gestures are by and large the lofty purview of heads of state — not heads of a state — makes Ryan‘s decision all the more remarkable. And gives him hero status. After all, desperate circumstances often make heroism possible. Among all those people in the burning twin towers who went back upstairs to help other victims rather than flee, surely more than a few thought they had little chance of survival either way. In the same way, Ryan’s failure as a civil servant gave him the courage to do something truly noble.

And so it is that hero Ryan is praised far and wide and spoken of in the same breath as the Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile his own wife won‘t speak to him (a neighbor’s killer was let off death row), and many Illinois residents feel only disgust. It‘s just a matter of time, they believe, before Ryan himself gets fingered in the secretary-of-state debacle and is singing the jailhouse blues. “He just didn’t want to get beat up in prison,” one Chicago friend scoffed.

It is a good thing George Ryan had nothing to lose. Californians know that better than anyone, especially those who oppose the death penalty. Our closest approximation to the Ryan act was the California Supreme Court under Rose Bird. From 1977 to 1986, Bird and her court majority overturned 64 death sentences. In return, they were booted by the voters after a vicious campaign. Nearly all of the death sentences were reinstated. No California politician has been able to sustain an anti-death-penalty stance since. The chill is so deep that even after the U.S. Supreme Court last summer banned the execution of mentally retarded inmates, our Legislature could not muster the votes to pass a law to comply with the ruling.

Ryan has no such worries. He‘s already out of office, and his successor in the statehouse has said he will let Ryan’s decision stand.

In an ideal world, Ryan‘s act would embolden governors nationwide to acknowledge what everybody knows to be true: that whatever might be gained from exacting the ultimate revenge on evil killers, the death penalty is deeply flawed. Alongside the worst of the worst there are undoubtedly innocent men and women, as well as those whose role in a killing was less than or equal to that of others who are not under sentence of death. These governors would then be free to act as Ryan — a Republican and a self-proclaimed death-penalty supporter — has acted.

With 171 men on Illinois’ death row and a kill rate of about one person per year, it would have taken the state of Illinois nearly two centuries to finish off the current population. By the time most of them were set to be killed, they‘d already have been dead from old age or illness. For the most part, they’re simply changing cells. In California, which has by far the nation‘s largest death row and where we kill an average of one condemned prisoner a year, the situation is even more extreme. At this rate we’re looking at 600-plus years to do them all in. Not to mention the estimated tab of hundreds of millions of dollars to litigate all existing cases.

California would do well to follow Illinois‘ lead. We can only hope it won’t take a scandal to make it happen.

Sara Catania is a Crime and Communities Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute, a New York–based nonprofit dedicated to reforming the criminal-justice system. To read more about the death penalty, go to

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