At great political peril, George Ryan did the right thing.
Not to canonize the man. After all, the then-governor of Illinois was later imprisoned on corruption charges.
But that doesn’t change the fact that, in 2000, stung that 13 inmates had been exonerated and freed from death row in the previous 23 years, Ryan committed an act of profound moral courage, imposing a moratorium on capital punishment. In 2003, he one-upped himself, commuting every death sentence in his state.
Recalling what Gov. George Ryan once did provides interesting context as Floridians and death penalty opponents around the country wait to see what Gov. Rick Scott will do.
Florida’s chief executive has on his desk awaiting his signature — or, dare we hope, his veto — a piece of legislation called the Timely Justice Act, passed by his state legislature in the apparent belief that Florida is not killing people fast enough.
More than 150 of them have been there longer than 20 years, and 10 have been there longer than 35 years. The average wait: 13 years.
The act would require the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days after a review by the state Supreme Court. Execution would have to take place within 180 days.
This measure is brought to you by the same legislative body that brought you the ill-conceived Stand Your Ground law that has lately led people to call Florida the “gunshine state.” This latest sop to frontier justice is necessary, we’re told, because delayed executions are “an affront to justice — especially for victims’ families.”
Beg pardon but I’m tired of hearing what we owe victim’s families. I speak from no deficit of compassion for them. I am, for goodness sake, a member of a victim’s family, albeit his extended family. R.I.P., Ted McCoy, my brother in law, who was murdered 20 years ago in Los Angeles.
That said, there’s something uncomfortably barbarous in this idea that we as a society owe those families blood as recompense.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-’70s, Florida has executed 75 people. But it has exonerated 24, many of whom spent more than a decade on death row. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Florida has the highest error rate in the country.
So how can a state that gets it wrong at least one time in every four want to speed up the process? Does no one care about executing someone who committed no crime?
Where is our solicitude for innocent people, wrong place, wrong time, people who are rushed, perjured, bumbled, erred and “oopsed” onto death row? Why does their pain affect us less? Why are they less deserving of our compassion? Are they not victims, too?
To his lasting credit, Illinois’ former governor came to recognize capital punishment as the moral sinkhole it is. It is probably too much to hope that Florida’s governor will do the same. But at a minimum he must veto this mistake in waiting. The bill his legislature has sent him imposes something that may indeed be timely.
But it sure as hell is not justice.