Alarmed by clemency

January 15, 2003

WHEN GEORGE Ryan pardoned four death row inmates and commuted the sentences of the other 167 in his last hours as governor of Illinois, he knew he'd be coming in for a pummeling. And, predictably, death penalty enthusiasts have focused on the most heinous of the murderers who have now been snatched from the clasp of the death gurney. Since Sunday, when the commutations were announced, Illinois and the rest of the nation have been treated to the retellings of lurid and grisly tales of homicide, the better to appreciate the folly of the governor's leniency.

Well, George Ryan is no longer governor and no longer has political ambitions, except perhaps to dodge a possible indictment stemming from a bribery scandal, so he's not very vulnerable to the gnashings of death advocates. A Republican, he once believed in the death penalty - until he got a firsthand look at the way it was wielded.

Capricious? Inexact? Since Illinois reinstituted its death row, it has executed 12 inmates - and exonerated 17, counting the four newest pardons.

That's 17 innocent people who were headed for the cemetery, courtesy of the Illinois judicial system. Not a great batting average, as Mr. Ryan noted. That's not even good enough for government work.

The departing governor acknowledged that in wiping out all of the state's death sentences he would be sparing the guilty as well as the innocent, though it's worth pointing out that a commutation to a sentence of life without parole is not exactly an invitation to a tea party. But he believes he was presiding over a system that was dangerously askew, in a state that lacked the will to fix it. So he wiped the slate clean.

Here in Maryland, the debate over the death penalty has taken a different direction. The moratorium - which incoming Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says he will lift - was inspired by concerns that race and geography have too much to do with who gets sentenced to death. A recent study by the state adds fuel to those concerns.

But while the oops-I'm-sorry trail of exonerations that so shocked Mr. Ryan in Illinois hasn't been so much of a factor here, it's not as if Maryland and Illinois are on different planets. It's a matter of what gets emphasized, but in all 38 states that impose the death penalty the ultimate question has to do with getting it right - in the particular and in the general.

That means: Does the race of the defendant or the victim make a difference? Does the locale make a difference? Is there an effective defense attorney? Are prosecutors swayed by politics? Can the police be counted on not to abuse their power?

The police and court systems in this country are surprisingly fallible. The death sentence, when executed, is unerringly final. That's not a good combination. Mr. Ryan came to recognize that.

"Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error," he said.

On his way out the door he gave Illinois a good shaking up. But, as he also pointed out, "If it's this bad in Illinois, it's probably just as bad across the country."

Let Maryland prove him wrong, before it moves on to the next execution.

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