Governor George Ryan: An Address on the Death Penalty
University of Chicago Divinity School
George H. Ryan is the Governor of Illinois. He was elected the state’s 39th governor on November 3, 1998, continuing a career of public service that included terms as secretary of state (1991-1999) and lieutenant governor (1983-91). Ryan also had an accomplished 10-year legislative career (1973-1983) in the Illinois House. In January 2000, Ryan instituted the nation’s first (and still only) moratorium on state executions, pending a thorough review of the capital judicial process. “Until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection,” he announced, “no one will meet that fate.” Two months later, Ryan formed the Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the state’s policy and process of administering the death penalty. Recently, in April 2002, the Commission recommended more than 80 changes to the state’s capital punishment system–proposed reforms that will likely prompt many states across the country to reexamine how capital punishment is being carried out.
For more information, call 773-702-6943 or email email@example.com.
PROFESSOR ELSHTAIN: Dean [of the University of Chicago Divinity School] Richard Rosengarten and I offer this welcome to all of you. A few acknowledgments before we start: David Guyer in the University Office of Community Affairs has been the lead planner for this event. He has put in many hours and I want to acknowledge his contribution to the event this afternoon. We are sponsored this afternoon by The University of Chicago and by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Pew Forum is located both in Washington, D.C., and here at the University of Chicago Divinity School and is supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Now the charter of the Pew Forum indicates that our aim is to promote a deeper understanding of how religion shapes the ideas and institutions of American society and that, of course, is also one of the roles, one of the primary missions of this Divinity School. So, there is a very happy confluence of these purposes. During the next academic year some Pew Forum-sponsored events will include a debate about the stem cell issue, a series of lectures on human rights and religious arguments for human rights, and an evaluation of and exploration of scripture and political life, asking such questions as, “What does it mean to think politically about scripture?” and “What does it mean to think scripturally about politics?”
But we are here this afternoon to take up or to continue a discussion about religion and the death penalty. Some of you were perhaps here in attendance at our big event on this theme January 25th. Governor Ryan was in Cuba on that day and could not attend, but he graciously made room in his schedule today because he wanted to be here and address the issue, and we are very grateful that he was able to clear his calendar in order to be here.
At this point, I want to turn over the occasion to the distinguished President of the University of Chicago, Don Michael Randal, who will introduce the Governor.
PRESIDENT RANDAL: Those of you who have been reading the paper these days know that the Governor has had several rather strenuous days laboring in the vineyards of democracy in Springfield, and we are grateful to him for keeping this date with us in the face of what he has been going through up until the late hours of last night. But we have him here today not to speak about how to pass a budget in Springfield, but rather to speak about the death penalty, a subject on which he has been a major figure in this country and has set an example that some others perhaps ought to have followed. In any case, I join all of you in welcoming him to this campus, a day we have been looking forward to for a long time and so let me say simply: welcome Governor, we look forward to your remarks.
GOVERNOR RYAN: Thank you very much. I want to thank President Don Michael Randel for that introduction and for the warm welcome to this wonderful institution. Ladies and gentleman I am delighted to have the opportunity to be here at the University of Chicago. As the President pointed out, little did I know this event would be the day after we had our final day of the General Assembly. We adjourned close to midnight last night and then we had to have a little session at the mansion that went on to the wee hours of the morning–though I snuck away and got to bed, so I got a little bit of sleep. But I am honored to have the opportunity to be here at the University of Chicago Divinity School. As we all know, the University of Chicago and the Divinity School form the cradle of intellectual development and moral authority, and it is really an honor and my pleasure to join you here in conjunction with this Pew Forum event.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is the center for the study of religion and public policy and public affairs in this country. I am honored to be here, and I want to thank John Carlson of the Pew Forum for the invitation. I also want to acknowledge Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School, and Professor Jean Elshtain, co-chair of the Pew Forum as well as the other folks that are here as part of this whole operation.
Special welcome as well to [outgoing Student Body President] Ben Anderson. Where is Ben? Call him President Ben, right? President, I guess that makes you and I both a lame duck, because you are the guy that is going out, right? Don’t worry about it; it isn’t bad. Not bad at all. Now the incoming President, President Gomez is also with us. Good luck in what you do here. These two are not only accomplished students of this great institution, but they are students of government as well, and some day – who knows? – they may be President or Governor. They certainly will have the right foundation that they need to do what they have to do.
It is a pleasure to be here, I was invited back in January to partake in an earlier forum with my fellow Governor, Frank Keating of Oklahoma, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, among others. I was unable to attend then because I was in Cuba. You will be happy to know, I still had an opportunity to discuss with Fidel Castro the moratorium that we have on executions in Illinois. That’s right, Castro’s Cuba is among the nations still executing criminals and on the watch list of every human rights organization. But Castro told me Cuba has a “de facto moratorium” that has been in effect for a couple of years. Castro indicated that he had some concerns about the death penalty but that he believed the people of Cuba still supported it for heinous crimes. Sound familiar? That conversation was just one of many, many surreal moments that I had in Cuba during my two humanitarian missions there. But, there must be something going on if even Cuba’s longtime dictator is reconsidering the death penalty.
In the invitation I received from the Pew Forum, you wrote that you were interested in how my religious and personal views bear upon the positions I have taken on the death penalty. The invitation referenced an interview I did with the Chicago Sun-Times in which the religion editor asked about how my religious faith influenced my decisions.
I was raised as a Methodist in a small town south of here, Kankakee, Illinois. My family was not the kind to wear religion on their sleeves. It was difficult because most drug stores open early on Sundays. But we did go to church when we could. But what I said in that interview is that I have prayed over this issue. In the end, all of us who believe, who have faith, are taught certain precepts from the time we are young. We are taught what’s right and what’s wrong, whether Christian, Muslim or Jew. We are also taught about eternal life and celebration hereafter.
One of the most fundamental of those religious beliefs is to protect the innocent. As God told Moses in the book of Exodus, it is up to us to show justice and mercy: “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.” We weren’t doing a very good job of protecting the innocent in Illinois, until two years ago when I declared what is, in effect, a moratorium on executions. Up until then I had resisted calls to issue such an order. I had always supported the death penalty. I always thought only the guilty were punished and sent to death row for committing the most unspeakable crimes.
I’m from Kankakee, Illinois. We always prided ourselves on trying to keep our small town feel. Kankakee was not immune to crime, but there was always a sense of community outrage. We always wanted to see the bad guy behind bars. Catch, them convict them, throw away the key. That was the sentiment I heard growing up in Kankakee, working in my father’s pharmacy. Why wouldn’t I?
You’ve heard me recall how I voted in the General Assembly to put the death penalty back on the books in Illinois. I believed the ultimate punishment played a role in our society for crimes so horrendous that death was the only penalty that fit the crime. In 1976, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was constitutional, I voted as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, to put the death penalty back on the books. During the floor debate on the capital punishment bill, an opponent of the death penalty said to those of us supporting the bill, “How many of you would like to throw the switch.” That was a sobering thought. I would never want to be the executioner, to “throw the switch.” I’d never want to be responsible for that.
But as a legislator, I was far removed from making that kind of life or death decision. By reinstating the death penalty, my colleagues and I in the General Assembly were tough on crime. It was up to prosecutors, judges and juries to determine who was guilty of a capital offense. I never questioned the system.
But in looking back, it is clear that I only dealt with the issue in the abstract. In those days, my opinion was just that, my opinion. I had no say on how the capital punishment system would be administered and applied. I’m a pharmacist, not a judge or a lawyer. I had no idea that more than twenty-five years later, I would have the good fortune to be elected Governor. And then, I would, in effect, be the one to throw the switch. In most of the thirty-seven states that have the death penalty, the Governor makes the final decision about whether to grant a stay of execution. That is an awesome responsibility, the most difficult faced by a governor. Should they live, should they die? Imagine having that decision on your shoulders. I must admit, I didn’t realize the enormity of it until I was faced with it. It has been a long, sometimes strange trip for me on the death penalty. I went from being the lawmaker from Kankakee who voted to reinstate the death penalty, to the governor who declared the country’s only moratorium.
We reinstated the death penalty in 1977 in Illinois and since that time we have executed twelve death row inmates. But, thirteen times, innocent men were convicted of capital crimes by judges and juries based on evidence they thought was beyond a reasonable doubt. On thirteen occasions, innocent men were condemned to die. And on thirteen times, innocent men were exonerated after rotting for years on death row. For that to happen even once is unjust. For that to happen thirteen times is shameful and beyond belief.
The first nine exonerations took place over several years, going back to 1987. In my first eleven months in office, four men were freed from Death Row after being cleared by the courts. That included Anthony Porter, a man with an IQ of less than sixty who spent over fifteen years on Death Row for a crime he did not commit–sixteen years on Death Row, all the time knowing he was innocent, while the state was trying to kill him and the real killer was free. That must be like hell on earth. And if not for the students at Northwestern University–journalism students!– who found the real killer, Mr. Porter would be dead. Killed by the state! He had ordered his last meal and been fitted for his burial suit.
When the thirteenth inmate was exonerated, I did the only thing I could do, the only thing any governor could do–I halted executions. That was the easy part, the hard part was to find out what had gone so terribly wrong. The hard part was to try to answer how our system of justice became so fraught with error, especially when it came to imposing the ultimate, irreversible penalty.
So I appointed some of the smartest, most dedicated citizens I could find to a commission to study what had gone so terribly awry. It was chaired by former Federal Judge Frank McGarr and co-chaired by former Senator Paul Simon and former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Thomas Sullivan. They led a panel which included former prosecutors, some defense lawyers, and non-lawyers. Harvard graduate and famed author Scott Turow served on the panel, he’s better known here for writing One L, his account of his first year at Harvard Law School, which hundreds of thousands of law students have read for solace. The backgrounds of my commission members were different but they shared one thing in common: a passion and commitment for justice. I thank them for their service.
They put together a tremendous document. The report itself is 207 pages and there are hundreds more pages containing technical analysis, including a study on race and sentencing. I have said before that the more I learn about the justice system, the more troubled I become. As I read this report, I am both impressed that these dedicated and brilliant citizens developed eighty-five recommendations to improve the caliber of justice in our state system.
I have taken that entire report and everything that requires legislation has now been introduced to the Illinois General Assembly. My bill proposes barring the execution of the mentally retarded; mandating that natural life is given as a sentencing option to juries; reducing death penalty eligibility factors from twenty to five; and barring the death penalty when a conviction is based solely on a jailhouse “snitch.” It is imperative that we move forward on all of the commission’s recommendations to fix our broken justice system. I hope the General Assembly will take the summer to hold hearings and meetings with all of the key parties – the prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims, and the wrongfully convicted.
But I am also deeply concerned. My commission’s report seems to confirm my worst fears about our capital punishment system, that it was fraught with error at every painful step of the process. The report reviews, at some level, every capital case that we have ever had in Illinois, but it took a closer look at the 13 inmates freed from Death Row and exonerated. Most did not have solid evidence.
A perfect example is the case of a remarkable man, Gary Gauger. Gary was from McHenry County. He was convicted and sentenced to die for brutally killing his parents. There was no physical evidence and prosecutors presented no motive. The primary evidence against Mr. Gauger were statements he allegedly made to police; my commission reported that those statements were never put in writing. Mr. Gauger denied the statements. But prosecutors won the conviction anyway and sent him to death row. Case closed. Until a few years later when federal authorities investigating a Wisconsin motorcycle gang -a totally unrelated case–caught gang members on tape confessing to the brutal crime. Gary Gauger sat on death row for nearly three years. Not only was he grieving the brutal murder of his parents. He had to grieve for himself as well, for being accused of taking his parents life. His freedom and his dignity stripped from him, he was caught in a nightmare that is too painful to imagine. He never gave up hope though. And he was innocent.
My commission says several cases involved prosecutors relying on the testimony of a witness with something to gain, like a jailhouse informant or an accomplice. Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams were two of the so-called Ford Heights Four, a south suburb in Cook County. The primary testimony against them came from a seventeen-year-old girl, with an IQ of less than sixty who police said was an accomplice in the murder of a couple. Seventeen years later, Jimerson, Williams and two others serving lesser sentences were released after new DNA tests revealed that none of them were linked to the crime. Later that year, two other men confessed to the crime and were prison. Seventeen years! Seventeen years! Can you imagine serving even one day on Death Row for a crime you did not commit?
We had one inmate, Steven Smith, convicted and sentenced to die based solely on the testimony of one drug-addicted witness. The case of Anthony Porter that I mentioned earlier also highlights the unreliability of some eyewitness testimony. Two eyewitnesses said they saw Porter kill a couple in a South Side Chicago park. Sixteen years later, journalism students working with a private investigator found those witnesses who recanted their testimony; then the students tracked down the real killer.
At least one case involved a false confession. Ronald Jones confessed to police to a rape and murder. He later said that confession was coerced and years later, DNA cleared him.
There are ten more death row cases still on appeal, known as the Burge 10, for the police detective commander who handled their investigations, all of which involve allegations of police abuse and excessive force. We still don’t know how those cases will end up, but they raise serious questions.
The commission Co-Chair Thomas Sullivan very eloquently discussed the report’s findings. He said, “In medical terms, our report calls for triage, an attempt to stanch the extraordinary rate of errors, reversals and mistaken convictions in capital cases.” And he was right. If you look at the reversal rate in capital cases in Illinois, it exceeds fifty percent. In fact, the chance of executing the wrong person in Illinois was like the flip of a coin. That’s not justice.
When we released the report, Thomas Sullivan noted that in the Ford Heights 4 case, the police were given the names of the four actual killers and rapists within a few days after the event, but failed to follow up. Meanwhile the four defendants served over seventy years in jail. Sullivan said, and I agree wholeheartedly, “A system that is so fragile, that a journalism student has to do the police work, is obviously badly flawed.” Where in the Illinois criminal code does it say that journalism students are part of the system to ensure that only the guilty are convicted and executed!
Perhaps in the most scathing indictment of our system, Sullivan noted the following: “The police, who conducted the investigations in these cases, remain on the force. The prosecutors who overstepped the bounds of fairness, and the defense lawyers, who gave incompetent defense, remain in practice. The judges, who permitted or caused the errors, remain on the bench.”
Now when I was a pharmacist, I know I couldn’t have stayed in business, if I only got it right fifty percent of the time. There is virtually no other profession where that level of mistake would be tolerated. Yet that is the situation that we have with the police, prosecutors, defense lawyers and the courts in capital cases in Illinois.
And these capital cases are just a small percentage of all of the criminal cases handled by the courts. What is happening in the rest of the system? If we have this level of error in cases where the ultimate penalty is at stake, what is happening with lesser crimes? I am concerned about that too, for the sake of the innocent. Tom Sullivan said the message from the commission and of this report is clear: “repair or repeal, fix the capital punishment system or abolish it. There is no other principled course.”
By the way, as I mentioned earlier, Thomas Sullivan is the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. He was a tough prosecutor, now in private practice. Some of the critics not happy with this report have criticized the commission as being stacked with death penalty opponents. I would point out that nine of the fourteen members are current or former prosecutors. When I appointed them, those opposed to capital punishment accused me of stacking the commission with death penalty supporters! This commission is made up of some of the most conscientious, dedicated people ever to enter public service. I am proud of the work they’ve done.
Before the report was officially released, it was being criticized. I cannot understand that. Why would you prefer the status quo? My commission concluded our twenty factors were too many and ought to be reduced to five. Some critics pointed out that it is an election year and therefore a bad time to suggest reducing the number of eligibility factors for the death penalty. I am well aware that it’s an election year, but matters of life and death and justice and fairness are more important than getting elected. Political leaders have an obligation to study this report before they jump to conclusions.
Current and former prosecutors have found fault with the report. Some have predicted that Illinois would become the new murder-for-hire capital of the world because participating in a murder-for-hire plot would no longer make one eligible for the death penalty. That’s ridiculous. This factor was eliminated in large part because these sentences rarely, if ever, withstand appeal. Other prosecutors and police officers have said the recommendations are a slap in the face to police. I don’t understand that either.
Throughout this, I have always pointed out that there is enough blame to go around for everyone. The commission highlights the need for better-trained defense attorneys and judges. It even suggests the state has not pulled its weight and provided enough money for things like DNA labs and a database, things that will help protect the innocent and convict only the guilty. No one is spared from accountability because we are all accountable. Our system is riddled with errors and omissions from top to bottom.
That is why I believe it is so vitally important that hearings are held this summer. We must have an honest debate about our system and whether or not it can be repaired I don’t know of any crime victim, police officer, prosecutor or politician who wants to see an innocent person executed. It is easy to be for the death penalty in the abstract. But until you sit where I sit, you don’t know just how difficult that decision can be.
Is revenge a reason enough for capital punishment? And can it blind the eyes of those pursuing justice? In the wake of September 11th, many say the American people support the death penalty now more than ever. This country is now at war, and the terrorists who attacked this country, who used passenger jets as missiles killing thousands of innocent men, women and children, were deranged. They were on a suicide mission and the crime they committed was already a capital offense. It was no deterrent. If Osama Bin Laden or his evil co-conspirators are caught, there is not a question they would face the death penalty, and perhaps that is the appropriate penalty.
But my concern is the system in Illinois, fraught with error and convicting and condemning the innocent along with the guilty. When I made my decision to declare a moratorium, I never consulted the opinion polls. Only since my decision do I notice them. A recent Gallup poll was interesting: Only 53% of those polled believe that the death penalty is applied fairly, while 40% say it is applied unfairly. Among non-whites, 54% believe that the death penalty is applied unfairly. When given the sentencing alternative of life without the possibility of parole, 52% of Americans support the death penalty and 43% favor life imprisonment. 82 percent of respondents oppose the death penalty for the mentally retarded, 73% oppose the death penalty for those who are mentally ill, and 69% of Americans oppose capital punishment for juvenile offenders. While that same poll still showed strong support for capital punishment – 72 percent – it is clear the American people are as concerned with fairness now as they have ever been.
At the beginning of my term, after Anthony Porter was freed, I sat in judgment for an inmate convicted of a brutal murder of a young woman. He was also involved in torturing and killing other women. After the Porter case I agonized: I personally reviewed the case files of the convicted murderer Andrew Korkoraleis. I had veteran lawyers review them as well. I talked to victims and investigators. I left no stone unturned. In the end I was convinced Korkoraleis committed a monstrous, unspeakable crime, and he was executed.
Then the Chicago Tribune did a chilling report on the fact that the whole system was flawed. Their findings were echoed in my commission’s report. Half of the nearly three hundred capital cases in Illinois had been reversed for a new trial or re-sentencing. Over half! Thirty-three of the death row inmates were represented at trial by an attorney who had later been disbarred or at some point suspended from practicing law. Of the more than one hundred-sixty death row inmates, thirty-five were African-American defendants who had been convicted or condemned to die by all-white juries. More than two-thirds of the inmates on death row are African-American. Forty-six inmates were convicted on the basis of testimony from jailhouse informants.
After Porter and Korkoraleis, I was already starting to question what I believed about capital punishment. The Tribune series left me reeling. And then two more inmates were exonerated. I had to act. After seeing, again and again, how close we came to the ultimate nightmare, I did the only thing I could do. Thirteen times we almost strapped innocent men to a gurney, wheeled them to the state’s death chamber and injected fatal doses of poison in their veins. I knew I had to act.
I said two years ago, and I say now, until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate.
A lot of people have called my stand courageous. Those are nice words, but they are nonsense. It was just the right thing to do. I also must decide what to do with the nearly one hundred sixty death row inmates who were convicted under our current broken system.
There is no question that there are guilty criminals on death row in Illinois. But, at our current rate of thirteen exonerations for every twenty-five death row inmates, and a fifty-percent reversal rate by the courts, the odds are as good as the flip of coin that there are also innocent men languishing behind bars.
My commission concluded that its recommendations will significantly improve the fairness and accuracy of the Illinois death penalty system. But it also concluded, “No system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no… innocent person is ever again sentenced to death.” That’s a powerful statement. It is one that I will ponder.
How has my faith influenced how I have faced this difficult issue? How do I deal with fundamental questions of justice and fairness and morality? I just try to follow my heart and my conscience. I have tried to remember what I’ve learned from my faith and my family. And, perhaps like you, I might reflect upon what God told the Israelites in Isaiah, “Keep justice and do righteousness.”
That, I pray, is what we will do. Thank you, and good night.
PROFESSOR ELSHTAIN: The Governor has called for an honest, open, public debate about the death penalty and he is eager for that debate to begin here. So, we would ask you to step to the microphone with your questions. We are sure that there are many issues that you would like to take up with the Governor, but we would ask you to confine your questions to the topic at hand in his presentation. If you are recognized, please try to keep the question as crisp as possible so that we can maximize the participation of as many people in the room as possible.
QUESTION: Governor Ryan, your institution of the moratorium two years ago has made you something of an international hero for your stand against what many people consider the barbarism of the death penalty as applied in America. I do applaud your designation of the Commission and the reforms that the Commission has come up with. However, I would like to ask you what can we do to bring an end to the death penalty – not simply to make reforms in the methodology of lethal punishment, but to bring an end to the death penalty?
GOVERNOR RYAN: I certainly think that education about the death penalty is important. There are a lot of people that just don’t quite know what it is about, don’t understand it, don’t really care frankly. They don’t deal with it in their everyday life. It’s just education, I think. That’s what it takes. People have to know first of all how bad our system is. That will help get rid of it. But they also have to understand what it really means.
QUESTION: Governor Ryan, first I want to say that I am proud to be a citizen of Illinois and that this happened here. It has certainly been a remarkable thing to witness it. I want to ask you another concrete question: What about the guilty, not just the guilty on death row. I’ve been in the prisons where they are largely my age who may well have been guilty, and probably, come from communities where crime has been forced on them. Our prisons are still based very much on the idea of punishing people rather than rehabilitating them and they are going to be brutalized at these places. You talk to the guards, they see the gangs, they see them going in and out of the prisons for much of their life and I wonder, what does one do to fix a justice system in general that still seems to be very much more about punishing people rather than helping them and helping the communities that have lost so many people to crime?
GOVERNOR RYAN: I don’t think anybody wants guilty people to go unpunished. They want then to be punished fairly. That’s what I think they want. That’s why I think most people approve of the moratorium because the system in Illinois hasn’t been fair. I don’t think they want to eliminate penalties for people that are guilty of the crimes that they commit, but, they don’t want to kill people who are innocent of crimes that they didn’t commit. I think you have to find the middle road there.
QUESTION: I think specifically, people who are guilty of perhaps of more minor crimes, such as drug laws who because they have entered the prison system or because they are part of the community where crime…because the community is either very poor or because of government neglect, have entered the prison, have become more and more involved in crime and in patterns of crime and because the prison is focused so much on punishing because perhaps lack of funding or because of certain assumptions of the system, they themselves don’t get the help they need to re-enter society and especially in communities such as those that surround the University where so many young men have been imprisoned and don’t seem to get the help they need to get back on track. How can we fix that problem as well, to not just punish crime but help criminals become citizens again?
GOVERNOR RYAN: Well, there are a lot of programs that do that. In spite of what you might think of the prison system in Illinois, we do have programs that help to educate people and help to put people back into the mainstream. It’s not enough. There are organizations that work at it. But if I had the answer to all of those questions, I probably wouldn’t be Governor.
QUESTION: Governor, I am here as an alumnus, but as President Randal knows, any alumnus of the University of Chicago will always be a student. I also happen to live abroad and I would like to applaud you for your stand because, as you know, the overwhelming majority of people in Europe have no sympathy whatsoever with the American system of death penalty. France abolished it many years ago and would never return to it. You spoke of your participation in the National Governor’s Conferences. I should like to know the reaction of your fellow governors to this question, to your stand and I refer to the former and present governors of the State of Texas.
GOVERNOR RYAN: I’ve been asked that question a lot. I don’t think there is a nation in Europe that has the death penalty. Any place in Europe. I think that the company we are in as Americans is with China, Iraq, Iran, some of the African countries, some of the Arab countries, still have the death penalty and America falls into that category. All of Europe, they don’t have the death penalty.
Now, as far as the other governors, I never tried to advise other governors. As I said earlier, the toughest job of being governor is when you have to decide who is going to live or die. You have to be comfortable with that system. I was uncomfortable with mine. I think George Bush has been asked that question a lot of times, but he is comfortable with the system he has in Texas. He thinks its works and works well; that is why he continued it. I just read the other day where he said it is the will of the American people, and they follow the will of the people. That the death penalty is an appropriate tool to use, maybe as deterrent–I don’t agree with that. Each governor has to make that decision on his or her own. So I haven’t really discussed it at any length with the other governors. We talk about a lot of other things, but we don’t talk about the death penalty.
QUESTION: You see no sign that other states will imitate Illinois?
GOVERNOR RYAN: Governor Glendening of Maryland put a moratorium on. It was politically expedient for him to do, and I am not being critical of him, but it was. I think it was more based on race than on a flaw in the system, But for whatever reason, I am glad that he did it because it just highlights the problem and brings it to the fore.
QUESTION: This last questioner kind of took my question, but I was going to ask you, given the role that you’ve taken and the stance on the death penalty that the Governor of Maryland did, do you think this critical thinking will lead to a national moratorium on the death penalty?
GOVERNOR RYAN: It will certainly stimulate some discussion and it will take young people like you to keep that discussion going across the country, all over, in every state with people that are concerned about it. You can’t sit back and be in the abstract anymore. You have to get out and get involved.
QUESTION: In the latest budget plan, have you pushed for closing some seven prisons downstate? Was that critical at all?
GOVERNOR RYAN: I just got this budget plan last night. I am not sure whether there are enough dollars there to pay all of the things that they’ve given me to do. But, I am going to find that out in the next week or ten days. I would imagine that we are going to make some cuts. I don’t know whether it is going to be prisons, but we are certainly going to have to make some cuts, because we have the revenue figures for the month of May. The State of Illinois is down another 220 million dollars in personal income and corporate income taxes, and the state sales tax is level. They haven’t even started to grow and they tell me June doesn’t look a lot better. So even with the action we took in Springfield this week to try and balance the budget, each month brings worse news; we will have to wait and see, but I am definitely going to have to make some cuts.
QUESTION: Governor Ryan, you’ve said many times that the purpose of the moratorium was to insure that no innocent person was killed by the state and that you support a plan or change of the system so that no innocent people will ever be executed. Yet, in the Commission’s findings, they say human nature being what it is, that can never be insured. So why not just abolish the entire concept of death penalty?
GOVERNOR RYAN: If I could wave a wand and do it, I might, but it takes action by those who are elected to public office and the General Assembly. Now that might be a good mission for you to get started on as a young man–to start to call for the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois and get some of your fellow students involved. But I have said all along that I am not sure there is a system that is perfect enough. I don’t know whether I believe, like other governors, that our system could ever be made perfect and that is the dilemma I am going to deal with before I leave office.
QUESTION: You briefly discussed the idea of revenge or vengeance regarding the death penalty, especially regarding 9/11 and in Kankakee who people wanted them to get what they deserve. But at the same time, there is a lot of Christian and some degree Methodist upbringing. The story I am thinking of is “throwing the first stone.” How does the conflict between the idea of not throwing the first stone and at the same time flipping the switch, what you personally have to do? How do you deal with that conflict?
GOVERNOR RYAN: Why did I grow up believing the death penalty was okay as a Methodist and a young man in Kankakee?
QUESTION: The tension between the idea of vengeance and getting what they deserve and the idea of leaving vengeance and not throwing the first stone in mercy. The tension in-between.
GOVERNOR RYAN: You deal with it with a lot of faith. It is one of those things, it’s hard to express. But it is a gut feeling; it’s a feeling you have to have. You know the difference between right and wrong, and you want to do right. I don’t know how else to explain it.
QUESTION: I feel an obligation as someone who has a family member who was murdered and whose murderer was executed this past February to applaud what I think is definitely your courageous and commonsensical move to begin a moratorium in Illinois. My uncle was killed by someone who in fact was the murderer, and I don’t think there was any error done in his arrest. But I think it was an absolute tragedy that my uncle’s murderer was then met by yet another murder, and I again applaud your effort. I want to press gently following that gentleman’s question before about what it will take, or why not call for an abolishment of the death penalty? You alluded to needing to think more about this issue following the report and I wanted to press you about what more you need to think about. What do you turn to in terms of making a decision yourself, in your heart or legislatively?
GOVERNOR RYAN: There are a lot of people who are friends and families of victims that have to be considered in this whole process that really believe that “an eye for an eye” is the answer. And they say that they want finality brought to their life, and that the only way they get it is to have the perpetrator die or be killed, and they may have some reasoning for that. They lead miserable lives thinking about what may have happened to their loved one and then think about the revenge that they could get if they killed the person and that maybe it would put an end to their misery as they go through life. So, it is one of those issues. Right now, we are safe. Nobody is going to die in Illinois in the electric chair or gas chamber as long as I am Governor until I can feel good about it. But I am not going to be Governor after January. So, that is when I have to make a decision–which I will make–about whether I move for the abolishment of the death penalty, whether I commute the sentences of the people that are there to take them off death row and put them in prison for life. It is one of those issues that I will continue to think about for awhile and get some opinions on.
QUESTION: How close did the Commission, if according to rumor, come close to recommending the absolute abolishment of the death penalty?
GOVERNOR RYAN: I don’t have the exact statement, but I read it here to you earlier. Tom Sullivan said, “either fix it, repair it or repeal it.” If you can’t have a system that works right, don’t have it–that was the basic feeling of several of the members. But there were those that still think that the death penalty is a deterrent and is an appropriate penalty.
QUESTION: Thank you again for being here today. As a taxpayer in this State I guess you can mark me down as someone who wants the death penalty completely abolished. My question is that one of the options the Commission offered is to fix the system, but in 1977 that was attempted and when the Supreme Court decided to allow the death penalty again under certain stipulations after certain items were fixed–and that didn’t work. Now again, there are eighty-five recommendations. What I am wondering is, the state already has big financial problems and I am guessing that these eighty-five recommendations, were they to be implemented, would be extraordinarily expensive. The death penalty is already more than a life sentence. So what I am wondering is, do you think this is even financially feasible? Smart economically?
GOVERNOR RYAN: I don’t think it is a financial issue at all. I don’t think this is a money or budget issue. But I can tell you that it costs more for a person on death row than it does for someone for life in prison. You may find that rather difficult. I think the average stay on death row is thirteen or seventeen years and that is expensive care.
QUESTION: Governor, I had a question for you, given the fact that we are here in the Divinity School. Many of us are scholars or budding scholars of religion and are interested in thinking about how we can draw from our faith, so I would put the question to you as a Governor: how would you advise citizens as believers, as voters, as people of faith, as those who sit on juries, to draw from their religious upbringing?
GOVERNOR RYAN: It is hard to tell somebody what to do along those lines. It goes back to what I said earlier: right and wrong. That’s an instinct almost that you are born with and raised with and have. Faith comes from teachings and understanding as you go through it. I think that most people who have faith call on it every day, not just about the death penalty, but about everything.
QUESTION: But if I could contextualize that, I am thinking about something you alluded to, that there might be some exceptional cases if you are dealing with perhaps the Osama bin Ladens. We know that people who take their faith seriously fall on different sides of the aisle on this question. How can people think and draw from their religious training and upbringing to think well about deliberating, about whether we should retain the death penalty even in those circumstances?
GOVERNOR RYAN: I guess you either believe in the system or you don’t. There may not be a middle ground except for horrendous kinds of situations where you want to make a point, and that’s what a lot of people think about 9/11. If those folks lived through that and went to trial, why wouldn’t you execute them? I don’t have a direct answer for you. You either believe in the death penalty or you don’t. I think that is probably the way it goes and I am not going to tell you how I believe right now. I am still struggling with it.
QUESTION: Governor Ryan, I have returned for the fourth time from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, where this year we reviewed the Commission’s report and had a two hour briefing, and where again, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has voted to support a worldwide moratorium of the death penalty. [Applause.]
Your report was received with such enthusiasm that people throughout the world are continuing to look to you for guidance and wisdom and to look, frankly, at what we are going to do in the next few months and in the years ahead, but particularly with the people on death row now, and with this criminal justice system. You know, the criminal justice system looks at laws, guilt and punishment. Restorative justice looks at the harm, who’s hurting and how can there be healing? These are issues of faith, Governor, and these are issues that we need our state as well as our churches and our communities to look at and we invite you to lift up these issues.
One education moment here. We know that the death penalty costs more than putting the person in prison for life. This is evidently a piece of information that our public, our citizens, our neighbors just have not grasped. That the cost of having death penalty in our society is not only unethical, but forgive me, I am a Christian minister, it is sinful. We take money away from programs that help children, the elderly, health programs, food programs, housing, education and we put this money in places such as this where we are putting people to death, not just the guilty. Let me put it another way: innocence isn’t always the issue. Larry Robeson was paranoid schizophrenic who was mentally ill, who was on death row seventeen years. I was his clemency lawyer. I’ve witnessed four executions in this country. We are putting people to death that are mentally ill, who are innocent of the death penalty, not just innocent of their crime, but innocent of their death penalty.
I would ask you for your commitment here to continue to reach out to people not only here in Illinois, but throughout the world and lift up this idea of moratorium, but speak out against the death penalty where ever and whenever you can.
GOVERNOR RYAN: Thank you.
PROFESSOR ELSHTAIN: Ladies and gentleman, there is a reception downstairs on the first floor of the common room. We invite you to join us there. Thanks for the Pew Forum staff for putting this event on and thanks to all of you for coming.