Gov. George Ryan's bold decision to grant clemency to all 167 inmates on Illinois' death row will intensify scrutiny of whether capital punishment is administered fairly in the United States. Some observers Saturday predicted an immediate backlash could solidify supporters of the death penalty, but in the long term, most expected heightened chances for reforms.
"Gov. Ryan has fired a shot that will be heard around the world and I think it will hasten the end of capital punishment," said Stephen B. Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.
"This action will show how unnecessary the death penalty is," because the beneficiaries of Ryan's action "are still being severely punished, getting life without possibility of parole, and the community is protected," Bright added.
But Joshua Marquis, co-chairman of the National District Attorneys Assn.'s Capital Litigation Committee, countered that Ryan "was spitting on the graves of more than 100 murder victims."
Another leading prosecutor also expressed outrage at Ryan's decision but predicted that the blanket commutations and Ryan's declaration that the Illinois system is irrevocably broken would have a mixed effect.
A 'Two-Edged Sword'
"It will be a two-edged sword: It may prompt necessary reform and it may prompt a rededication to the death penalty," said Paul Logli, the district attorney in Rockford, Ill., who also is vice president of the National District Attorneys Assn.
UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring said that, in the short term, Ryan's action might generate more criticism than praise because last year he held out the prospect that some inmates would be executed and the families of victims in those cases will be particularly angry. "It will be those violated expectations that will precipitate a reaction in the next couple of weeks."
But ultimately, Zimring said, "This will be one of the major landmarks in the end game for American capital punishment which already has begun."
Some observers think the end game began in the same place where Ryan made his announcement Saturday: at Chicago's Northwestern Law School.
Four years ago, foes of capital punishment held a conference at Northwestern, where they presented 29 former death row inmates -- most of them non-white -- who had been exonerated and released from prison. In a dramatic presentation, the 27 men and two women came onstage individually, gave their names, described the crimes they been wrongly convicted of, the length of their incarcerations and in a mantra-like refrain, said that if the authorities had their way, "I'd be dead today."
The next year, the Chicago Tribune published a series on major systemic flaws in the Illinois death penalty system, and in January 2000, Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in the state, saying he had lost confidence in how capital punishment was being administered in the state. At that point, 13 men who had been on death row in Illinois had been exonerated while 12 had been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.
In April, a blue ribbon commission appointed by Ryan issued a report that excoriated the system's failings.
The commission, which included prosecutors and defense lawyers, recommended 85 reforms, including reducing the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty from 20 to five; banning execution of the mentally retarded; and banning death sentences for those convicted on the uncorroborated testimony of a single eyewitness or a jailhouse informant.
But none of the reforms has been enacted, and Ryan cited the state legislature's failure to act as a key reason for his action Saturday.
In the meantime, one other governor -- Parris Glendening of Maryland -- declared a moratorium, and several other states, including North Carolina, Arizona and Nevada, have been reexamining the fairness of capital punishment in their states.
The reexaminations were prompted by revelations that, since 1976, 102 men and women sentenced to death nationwide were exonerated and freed from prison, including a number whose innocence was established by DNA testing.
Moreover, according to Justice Department figures, only half as many death sentences were meted out in 2001 as in 1998.
Before Ryan's action Saturday there were more than 3,700 people on death rows across the country.
Texas Leads Nation
There were 71 executions in the U.S. last year. Nearly half of those, 33, were in Texas. California has the nation's largest death row population -- 612 -- but has executed only 10 people, including four since Gov. Gray Davis, a fervent death penalty supporter, took office in 1999.
Legislation has been introduced in Washington to reform federal death penalty procedures, and the chief sponsor, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said Saturday that he would continue to push to resolve the widespread problems.
"The death penalty system is fundamentally flawed nationwide," Leahy said.
"That is why we need national reforms to prevent the sort of terrible choices that governors now face."
Last year, he noted, the Innocence Protection Act was co-sponsored by more than half the members of the House but never even got a committee vote in the Republican-led chamber.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a death penalty proponent who succeeded Leahy as chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the new Congress, was not available for comment Saturday.
White House officials on Saturday reiterated President Bush's support for capital punishment.
"The president supports the death penalty for violent and heinous crimes, which he believes ultimately saves innocent lives," said Marcy Viana, a White House spokeswoman. She called Ryan's action "a matter for the state of Illinois."
Leahy sharply disagreed. "Some opponents of reform will argue that Illinois is a special case, but in fact the only thing special about Illinois is that its governor took a hard look at the system," he said.
Indeed, the most comprehensive study of the death penalty yet undertaken reported in June 2000 that state and federal courts nationwide had overturned death sentences in more than two-thirds of all capital cases. And in the vast majority of cases retried, the defendants were not resentenced to death, it found.
The study also found that Illinois was well within the mainstream: Its overall reversal rate was 66%, just under the national average of 68%.
Columbia University law professor James Liebman, the principal author of the study, said he hoped other states would learn from what Ryan did Saturday.
The governor's action "has to be understood in light of the failure of the legislature to take any action after a very good commission report with good and conscientious proposals. The governor was put in a very hard position, with no evident remedy on the horizon," Liebman said.
"I see warning signals to other states like Maryland, Nevada and North Carolina," where widespread problems in administering the death penalty have been identified, he said.
"The strong suggestion I read from the Illinois experience," he added, "is to get out in front of the problem and adopt reform proposals."
Robin Maher, who heads the American Bar Assn.'s Death Penalty Representation Project, which recruits lawyers to represent death row inmates on appeal, said she hoped Ryan's actions "bring attention to the flaws of the death penalty."
"There are so many other death penalty states that have the same problems as Illinois times 10. Further scrutiny would be beneficial."
Still, no analyst predicted that any other governor is likely to do anything of the magnitude that Ryan did Saturday. Maryland Gov. Glendening said he would not commute any death sentences before leaving office this week.
Ryan's successor, incoming Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, said blanket clemency was "a big mistake." He said cases should be considered one by one.
On the other hand, even prosecutors such as Logli acknowledged that Ryan was "well within his rights."
"It is written in our constitution," he said. But he took strong issue with "the wisdom and the propriety" of what Ryan did.
Along the same line, New York University law professor Stephen Gillers said, "Pardons and commutations were not created for wholesale use."
'A Logical Extension'
But Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School in New York, said, "Wiping the slate clean is a logical extension of all that Gov. Ryan has learned about how flawed and corrupt" the capital punishment system is in Illinois.
Other observers said the fact that a governor was on national television live for an hour criticizing the death penalty in great detail was in itself a landmark event that could have significant ramifications.
"This is a very unusual moment," said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
He said Saturday's announcement was the most dramatic event in death penalty history since the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, sparing the lives of more than 600 people then on death row.
Even though Gillers criticized the blanket commutation, he said renewed debate could only be beneficial.
"One broader cultural consequence of Ryan's decision and his explanation is that it will put the issue back in the public eye, both in terms of the moral rightness and more immediately in the fairness of who dies."