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What U.S. papers say about death penalty

  |   Jan. 14, 2003 at 1:40 PM
Boston Globe

Someday Americans will recognize the current period of national debate on the death penalty as an abolition movement much like the one that ended slavery. This is no longer the vain hope of death penalty opponents. The number of people on death row is down for the first time since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. New death sentences declined in 2001 by almost 50 percent, and executions are increasingly limited to Texas, Florida and a few other states. A slight majority of Americans oppose capital punishment when presented with the alternative of life in prison without parole. We believe it is only a matter of time before state-sanctioned execution joins slavery in the archives of benighted ideas.

When that history is written, Governor George Ryan of Illinois will be remembered as one of the great abolitionists. With just 48 hours to go in his term as governor, Ryan last weekend commuted the sentences of all 167 death row inmates in Illinois and gave outright pardons to four others whose confessions were found to have been obtained through torture. ''Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error,'' he said. ...

A week from today, ''The Exonerated,'' a play about six death-row inmates who were wrongly convicted, will open at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston. With dialogue taken from court transcripts and interviews with the inmates themselves, the drama demonstrates powerfully that human beings are not infallible and that no system designed by them can avoid error. Death is absolute. Its administration by the state must end.


Washington Times

"Sometimes, 4-year-old Jordan Evans tells his little brother, Elijah, about their mother," the 1998 ... story reads. " 'Our mom's name was Debbie,' " Jordan's grandfather heard him say one day. "And she was good."

Jordan will never know his mother, who was brutally murdered the very night he was born. But thanks to Gov. George Ryan -- who issued blanket commutations to all 156 prisoners on death row on Saturday, just two days before leaving office -- the sentences of two of the predators responsible for her murder, Jacqueline Williams and Fedell Caffey, were commuted to life imprisonment.

One night in November 1995, Jordan and Elijah's pregnant mother, Debbie Evans, was brutally murdered by Williams and Caffey, who invaded her suburban Chicago apartment. The killers stabbed Miss Evans in the throat and shot her in the head. Then, as she lay dying, they tore Elijah from the womb. They stabbed Elijah's 10-year-old sister, Samantha, to death. Then, they kidnapped his 8-year-old brother, Joshua, whose corpse was found in an alley the following day. Williams and Caffey left Jordan behind; when police found him, he was stained with his mother's blood.

Some of the more doctrinaire death penalty opponents believe Mr. Ryan deserves a Nobel Prize for emptying Illinois' death row. Murder victims' families, rightly and understandably, think this is nonsense. ...

Many speculate that Mr. Ryan is crusading against capital punishment to divert attention from the mushrooming criminal investigations that have defined his term as governor and before that, his tenure as secretary of state. Perhaps, Mr. Ryan wants to ingratiate himself with the Chicago Tribune, the state's largest newspaper, which has focused heavily on problems in the state death penalty law. If so, he's failing miserably. Yesterday, the Tribune was on the mark in denouncing Mr. Ryan as a man who leaves office "as a governor disgraced -- driven from office if not by his own misdeeds, then by his inattention to the surrounding corruption that has stuck to him like swamp muck." We concur. What Mr. Ryan did was reprehensible.


Denver Post

We don't doubt for one moment that Illinois Gov. George Ryan's blanket commutation Saturday of the death sentences of every inmate on that state's death row will renew debate on capital punishment.

Even though The Denver Post long has opposed capital punishment, we won't cheer Ryan's actions, which smack as much of political grandstanding as of the altruistic motives he attempted to ascribe to himself in commuting 163 death sentences in the final days of his scandal-plagued term. ...

We're deeply troubled that Ryan set himself up as the sole arbiter of an important issue, ignoring the will of the people of Illinois, their elected representatives and the state's judiciary. Such issues are too important to be addressed in a one-size-fits-all manner.

In so doing, he may provoke a backlash that delays for years the ultimate abolition of the death penalty in the United States and weakens the case against this barbaric practice -- merely to salvage his own reputation.


Des Moines Register

In clearing out the cells on death row Saturday, Illinois Gov. George Ryan quoted the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun's famous line, "I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death."

Unfortunately, both Blackmun and Ryan uttered those words at the tail-end of their careers. Things might be different had both men brought such passion to challenging capital punishment earlier in their careers. ...

Even with the Illinois death row emptied, more than 3,500 inmates around the country await the executioner. The evidence suggests a good number of them would not be there if the system worked as it should. Ryan concluded it can never work as it should. The question is how many more men and women will be wrongfully convicted and executed before all states accept that reality.


Seattle Times

Gov. George Ryan's last, conscience-wracked act as Illinois governor should give Americans everywhere cause to do some soul-searching themselves.

On his last weekend in office, Ryan emptied Illinois' death row, pardoning four and commuting the sentences of another 167 convicts. It was an astonishing and courageous act for a man who, as a legislator in 1976, voted to reinstate the death penalty in Illinois.

Ryan felt he had no choice. Information, including DNA evidence, revealed some of those sentenced to death were innocent, and of the others, there are suspicions the penalty was not fairly applied.

Some death-penalty proponents, including victims' family members, are angry, but their blame is better aimed at legislators who squandered their chance to act on reforms proposed by the governor's Commission on Capital Punishment, which included prosecutors and public defenders.

Those who favor the death penalty in extreme cases, as this editorial page does, can only do so if the weight of evidence is sufficient to withstand the harshest scrutiny. That no longer appeared to be the case in Illinois. ...

Illinois' review has led the way for other states to review their death-penalty systems.

The outgoing Maryland governor imposed a moratorium last May, pending the results of a University of Maryland study released last week. The study found that prosecutors were more likely to seek the death penalty in cases where African Americans were accused of killing Caucasians.

North Carolina, Arizona and Nevada don't have moratoriums but are reviewing their cases.

The 33 other states that impose the death penalty should also.


San Diego Union-Tribune

Outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of every inmate on that state's death row -- 163 men and four women. Citing 17 wrongful capital punishment convictions, Ryan argued that Illinois' death penalty system was fundamentally flawed and unjust.

Pending wholesale reforms to Illinois' system, Ryan refused to sanction any more executions. His dramatic parting act raised fundamental questions which the rest of the country can usefully join Illinois in pondering. ...

Gov. Ryan, meanwhile, unwittingly demonstrated the potential for injustice on the other side when he commuted all death penalty sentences of death row inmates without exception. Collectively, the 167 felons whose death sentences were commuted were convicted of killing more than 250 people. The Chicago Tribune, a strong advocate for death penalty reform, also editorialized that Ryan's blanket commutation "will also spare the lives of some of the vilest killers in Illinois."

That cannot be justice, either.


Detroit Free Press

Outgoing Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois acted boldly and rightly in commuting the death sentences of more than 150 men and women. Ryan's action should heat up the debate on capital punishment and underscore the unfair way the system works.

Death penalty supporters who criticize Ryan should note that he was once one of them. But after conclusive evidence showed 13 death row inmates in Illinois had been wrongly convicted, Ryan became convinced the system was broke. ...

The national debate has shifted from the morality of the death penalty to the more pragmatic questions over whether the system acts fairly. The evidence is overwhelming: It does not. On that basis alone, the death penalty should end.


Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot

The decision of outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan to grant blanket clemency, including four pardons, to 171 individuals slated for execution by his state is a stunning and courageous act.

Understandably, the reduction of sentences to life in prison has prompted wails of protest from the families of those slain, often under extremely brutal circumstances.

But Ryan, who launched the nation's most intensive study of capital punishment after 13 death row prisoners were exonerated in his state, has had an opportunity to explore the inner workings of the process to a degree duplicated by few Americans. In an era when DNA testing has exposed the fallibility of the criminal justice system, Ryan concluded that the potential for executing an innocent person is simply too great to tolerate. ...

The example of Earl Washington Jr., freed after 17-plus years in prison, more than half of them on death row, is a window on the failings of the Virginia system.

There is no reason to think that Washington's story is unique. The failure of Gov. Mark Warner and key lawmakers to explore the possibility spares them and the public the chilling knowledge that compelled Gov. Ryan to act.


Houston Chronicle

Outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan injected new emotional vigor into the ongoing death penalty debate when he issued a blanket commutation of sentences and a few pardons over the weekend, emptying his state's death row. Calling Illinois' system "arbitrary and capricious, and therefore immoral," Ryan commuted 167 sentences.

Whether the controversial move will be a defining moment in that debate, or spur a backlash that will derail efforts to reform or abolish capital punishment, is a question left hanging. ...

There seems little or no inclination in Austin to pursue these issues or even to ask the questions. While it will continue to stir debate on capital punishment, a spokesperson for Gov. Rick Perry said, the Illinois action will have no impact on Texas' use of the death penalty.

To make any changes, public opinion is needed, Illinois state Sen. Peter Roskam, a Republican, told The Washington Post after Ryan's commutations.

That political reality may be one of the few things both sides agree upon.

Meanwhile, dwarfed by the news from Illinois over the weekend was a story about how the government of Kenya is working toward abolishing its death penalty.


(Compiled by United Press International.)

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