Years from now, hopefully we will look back at the cleansing of Illinois’s death row by outgoing Gov. George Ryan as a turning point in our nation’s horrible history of state-sponsored death.

The governor, who opened a new national discussion of the death penalty in 1999 when he declared a moratorium on executions, commuted the death sentences of 163 men and four women to prison terms last weekend and freed four other men Jan. 12.

Ryan, who began his political career as an enthusiastic supporter of capital punishment, called for the moratorium on all executions after a series of a close calls in which 17 men on death row were found to be innocent — one only 48 hours before a scheduled execution. After examining Illinois’ entire capital punishment system, Ryan found it was riddled with errors.

“Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error — error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die,” he said.

The statistics are staggering — a person found guilty in a rural area was five times more likely to be sentenced to death than someone who committed murder in Chicago. Minorities make up an overwhelming majority of those condemned to die and 35 blacks were condemned to die by all-white juries. More than half of the nearly 300 capital cases in the state’s history had been overturned and many of the lawyers who had represented these defendants at trial had been disbarred or suspended from the practice of law by the Illinois bar.

The Illinois system was broken and in need of serious repair. Ryan made numerous attempts to persuade the Illinois legislature to try to correct the death penalty system before his sweeping action. He was largely ignored and it is hard to understand why supporters of capital punishment would not want to do everything in their power to ensure innocent people are not condemned to die.

Exhaustive studies have shown the death penalty does not deter crime. In the 12 states that have abolished its use, homicide rates have not increased. The same studies conclude that it is a punishment disproportionately imposed on poor, racial minorities and the disadvantaged in society. The satisfaction of retribution that the death penalty provides can never outweigh the danger of unfair or erroneous application as long as it exists.

No civilized country — except the United States — continues to use death as a means of punishment. A nation that should set the example for fairness and justice in the world must follow Ryan’s lead and no longer allow the carnage of death to continue.

Hildebrandt can be reached at

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