Governor Ryan (2002)

Much has been said and written lately about the possibility that Governor George Ryan may be giving consideration to commuting the sentences of all those on Illinois' death row before leaving office.

One of the constituencies heard from in the discussion is, inevitably, the so-called "victim's rights movement." Setting aside the question of whether those so identified are in fact the creatures of hidden interested parties, namely prosecutors and prison guards, what is too often missing from the discussion is the voice of those who have also lost loved ones to violence yet oppose capital punishment as inappropriate to their healing process and harmful to our society.

Clearly, listening to people in pain replay the scenes of horror that their loved ones have experienced plays on the emotions. How could it be otherwise? To suggest, however, as some have done, that Governor Ryan could not consider the course of action mentioned had he availed himself of the opportunity to meet with and know the stories of victims of such horror is to both underestimate the man and to misunderstand the vast responsibility he has undertaken. Unlike the run of the mill, finger-in -the-wind politician, George Ryan understands that his duty is to formulate policies and make decisions that advance the well-being of all of the citizens of his state, not the self-identified injured few. He has, through the choices he's made, demonstrated his understanding that accepting the mantle of leadership sometimes means more than cutting ribbons and kissing babies; it can mean reaching into the core of one's being and answering deep, dark, awe-inspiring questions, like who are we as a people, what does it mean to profess a belief in equal justice under law, and who has the right to make decisions meaning life and death for other human beings?

As one who has lost a loved one to violence, I am proud to know that the elected leader of one of our states has the courage to probe this politically dangerous territory. As a supporter of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, a national organization made up of victim's family members who have suffered no less than those whose stories are so often flogged by the media yet have come to very different conclusions on how to find personal peace, I believe we owe him a debt of gratitude.

Governor Ryan's inquiry has disclosed a truth apparently not visible to those satisfied with simplistic solutions. All is not as clear as the blood-for-blood crowd would have us believe. Character and understanding is the stuff of those who come together in MVFR and the reality they've found is that their needs are not served by retribution; their loved ones are not returned to them with the death of the perpetrator of the crime that has caused them such grief. "Closure," such as that promised by authorities wanting to use these victims for their own political purposes, is not magically available once another death is added to The Great Ledger. What is wanted and needed is reconciliation.

Reconciliation is available - if more easily reached with loving and unnderstanding help - when one begins to deal with the reality of the loss suffered and makes the determination to go on, to make the best of one's life in the face of the absence of the lost loved one. Would anything else be wished by the deceased if he or she could speak to those left behind? And yet such reconciliation is put on hold by authorities who would have the grieving ones continue to serve as their emotional firepower.

Governor Ryan, a man of extraordinary courage - a leader in the true sense of the word - has come to very difficult decisions by dint of the fact that his office requires that he act in the best interests of the people of the entire state. And his examination of the processes of the death penalty system - indeed the criminal justice system - now generally recognized as "flawed," requires that one of good conscience cannot allow it to continue to operate until and unless those flaws are corrected.

The duty of leadership requires the consideration of the well-being of all and cannot be sacrificed in order to meet the demands - no matter how deeply felt - of the few. And this is particularly the case when an objective examination of the facts indicates that harm comes to the entire community - cheapening of the regard for life, justifying violence as a response to violence, lowering moral standards - through the continuation of the practice some insist will end their own suffering.

It has been suggested that the action Governor Ryan may be considering would somehow remove responsibility, liability or culpability from those who have committed horrible crimes. This is an example of how far an anguished emotional state can carry us from the realm of reality. Life in Prison Without Possibility of Parole is a punishment of such extreme severity that some are said to prefer death.

Governor Ryan's courage in this matter is worthy of worldwide praise. To suggest otherwise is to grievously misunderstand the issue at hand. Reciting a litany of horribles, a ploy often used to buttress the argument for death, serves no worthwhile purpose; it simply inflames the fears of vulnerable citizens while further exploiting both the victims and their surviving loved ones.

Perpetrators of brutal crimes must, of course, be separated from society. The way in which a society then deals with them is a reflection of its own level of civilization. And ours, thanks to politically ambitious prosecutors, careless, hurried, sometimes uncaring police, politicians more concerned with seeming "tough on crime" than serving the public and a populace goaded by exploitative media, has fallen well below the standard set by the rest of the modern world. Governor Ryan's willingness to take the huge personal risk of opting for the difficult road of moral leadership not only demonstrates his personal integrity and his respect for the people of Illinois, it points the way for others to help lift this society to the level it deserves.

One can only wish him Godspeed.

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