Jim Ryan's full circle on death penalty

Jim Ryan's full circle on death penalty

Posted by JP on Fri, 11/13/2009 - 12:19

On Thursday there was a bit of shock in the political world as former state Attorney General Jim Ryan for the first time expressed sorrow for cases he oversaw as a prosecutor that put two innocent men on death row.

In the email from his longtime spokesman, Ryan also staked out his new position on the death penalty, stances that in at least one key area contrast those from his previous run for governor in 2002.

Here’s what Ryan said yesterday about the death penalty moratorium still in place more than a decade after then-Gov. George Ryan declared it.

“If I am elected governor, I will not lift the moratorium on capital punishment until we have created a more limited and accurate system of capital punishment.”

Back in 2002, when he was running against Rod Blagojevich, the death penalty was a huge issue. The exonerations were fresh and Gov. Ryan’s moratorium was national if not world news.

As part of an issue series, the Daily Herald asked Ryan and Blagojevich if they’d resume executions (which would of course require lifting the moratorium.)

Here’s what Ryan said.

“Yeah, I would expect we would start up executions. Sure."

Yesterday, Ryan’s email concluded with this passage:

“If we are to retain capital punishment as a sentencing alternative, then we owe it to the citizens of Illinois and former defendants in death penalty cases who have been exonerated to learn from our mistakes, including my own, to ensure the criminal justice system is as accurate and fair as humanly possible.”

In 2002, he indicated that a person’s guilt could overcome certain shortcomings in the case when it came time to decide whether to grant mercy to the condemned inmate.

“You can have a case with someone who's committed murder. There's an abundance of evidence. There's no question about guilt. Now why would you commute that sentence? What about the families of the victim? What about the victims?" Ryan said. "To me, that just is not the proper approach.”

Ryan did reiterate yesterday his continued support for narrowing the list of crimes that can bring about a death sentence.

2002: “I think we should narrow the scope of capital punishment through our reforms, and I think we should raise the bar of certainty in capital cases."

2009: “While Illinois has made significant progress, other reforms have been left on the table, such as the reduction in the number of eligibility factors that trigger the death penalty.”

And Ryan also said he’d support a statewide vote on whether the death penalty should remain. Four years ago, the Daily Herald asked all the candidates running for governor whether they’d support such a referendum.

Republicans Bill Brady (who’s again seeking the GOP nomination), Ron Gidwitz and Judy Baar Topinka all said “yes.”

Republican Jim Oberweis and Democrats Rod Blagojevich and Edwin Eisendrath said “no.”

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