Vol. 11, No. 3

January 16-22, 2003

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Follow ‘Land of Lincoln’ Approach to Death Penalty

If you knew George Ryan, you might not think him capable of causing an explosion of any sort. Ryan, who was governor of Illinois until Monday, is a small-town pharmacist from south of Chicago, a mainstream Republican who rode the law-and-order horse through a long career in office. He’s a blustery, old-fashioned Chamber of Commerce-loving fellow who seldom looked favorably on women’s rights or causes of any other sort.

Last weekend, Ryan did something so stunning that it made headlines around the world and won him a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. After concluding that more than a dozen condemned inmates were wrongly convicted of their crimes, he closed down Illinois’ Death Row and commuted the sentences of 167 of its residents.

Ryan’s bold stroke proved anew that ordinary people can do amazing things. It also dumped a tanker of fuel on a death-penalty debate that is raging in Maryland and across the country.

Illinois and Maryland have been in a similar boat; governors in both states — both of them avowed death penalty supporters — had imposed moratoriums on executions after finding troubling questions about how the sentences came about.

Illinois is bigger and more complex but still not that much different than Maryland. Each has one dominant, crime-heavy city, a heavy minority population, a lot of suburbs and a southern, rural reach. In Illinois, experts and journalists who began studying the death penalty three years ago found not just procedural irregularities but mortal errors.

Maryland has unearthed its own legitimate questions. Most recently, a study of 6,000 homicides showed that the race of the victim had a lot to do with whether the death penalty was sought. In other words, if the victim is white, there is a vastly better chance of a sentence short of capital punishment than when the victim is not.

Maryland’s spanking-new governor, Robert Ehrlich, in keeping with a campaign promise, vows to end our state’s own moratorium. We would hope that he would follow Illinois’ lead and delay the decision until Maryland’s system is put through the same exhaustive study.

Like any office, Bay Weekly’s is torn over the death penalty. There are those among us who, like 70 percent of Americans, support it as a sure way to wipe out evil. Others of us look at America’s death penalty like Europe and much of the world sees us, wondering how we can trumpet the sanctity of life and then take life away.

No matter how people view capital punishment, we wonder how anyone can risk what Ryan called “the demon of error” and not take every precaution that the system offers. In this day of DNA understanding, we can take more of those precautions.

Ehrlich explained that he would be following the will of Marylanders in putting to death the most cold-blooded and vicious murderers.

But in running for office, Ehrlich took pains to persuade us that he is not just another politician bending to the wind of public opinion. Even if he ends the moratorium, we hope that he will encourage Illinois-styled studies to make certain that Maryland is not guilty of murder.

Copyright 2003
Bay Weekly