George Ryan’s recent decision to remove all Illinois prisoners from Death Row has set off a flurry of debate in legal, political, and media circles. Some view Ryan as a righteous liberator, condemning an evil institution. Others regard the former governor as a criminal granting a stay of execution to fellow (though more vicious) criminals. Regardless of Ryan’s criminal transgressions, his actions

By Gus Bode

Since Willie Horton and debate questions regarding the death penalty sunk Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign in 1988, politicians have realized the awful truth:Americans are paralyzed by their fear of crime. In order to get elected, it is best to placate that fear.

The nightly news is rife with stories of violence, and white America is afraid. Afraid of, well, black men. How convenient that so many on Death Row across America are black males. Of course, Death Row is not merely a legalized lynching, although at times one would be hard pressed to find a difference. People of all colors and sexes are executed. The execution of so many of one race does illuminate one of the many flaws in the system – bias. Justice may be blind, but judges and juries are definitely not. And even if they are truly unbiased, they remain human, and prone to mistakes.

Since no system is perfect, it is logical to assume that in any case, errors will occur. People will be wrongly convicted. It is unavoidable. Yet a prisoner serving time in prison and a prisoner who has been executed have an important difference of situation, beyond a difference in breathing patterns, new evidence can clear the former’s name and terminate his sentence, while the latter can know no redemption. Yet citizens are willing to waive this right to appeal, assuming that they will never be in that situation, and that only “bad people” will be affected.


It seems logical:”bad people” shouldn’t have rights! The fear that inspires people to abandon their rights must be a pressing fear indeed. Yet it is a fear that must be examined. Is that fear justified? Do the news media help to create that fear? Even if people’s fears regarding crime are truly justified, is prostration at the feet of violent state sanctioned retribution the best answer? Should a government be entrusted with the power to kill its own citizens, and to thus remove from them permanently their right to appeal? How trusting we are of men with badges or gavels? Some will argue that all this is meaningless if the death penalty can deter murder. A simple comparison between countries without capital punishment and our own reveals the truth.

Our country has far more murder than any of the other “free” nations. Furthermore, this theory defies logic. Criminals do not commit crimes expecting to be caught, and thus the notion that the death penalty prevents murders is a fallacy. Certainly, violent criminals must be prevented from committing further violent acts, but must we make a farce of democracy and justice in the process? So many nations no longer use capital punishment, yet America, the “land of progress,” remains stuck in a century passed. Primal vengeance, however disguised with technology and state sanctions, has no place in our society.

Another death will not bring murdered loved ones back to family members. Trampled rights will not bring us safer streets. The death penalty is a quick fix – it satisfies the need for vengeance while ignoring underlying social and societal ills that lay behind crime and violence. One day America must learn that “an eye for an eye” makes the whole world blind. And to think, it took a lame duck Illinois governor to act as our conscience.

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