Death Penalty Commentary - The first article in the Ordinary Potato series


Strange Hero

Copyright 2000, 2008 by Leonard Grossman

Illinois Governor George Ryan is no ideologue. When he was the stateís Secretary of State he sat on top of a pile of corruption and bribery, which led to untold deaths as the result of a license-for-bribes scheme, which had resulted in the licensing of incompetent truck drivers. I hasten to point out that at the time this essay was written no evidence had yet been disclosed that would directly implicate him in the scandal, even though there was no doubt that his campaign coffers were the ultimate beneficiary of the scheme.* As governor he has overseen the decimation of once respected agencies like the stateís Human Relations Commission. Outstanding personnel have been replaced by cronies and the nominees of cronies, not because as a Republican he opposed the "liberal" charge of the agency but solely in the exercise of political power and patronage, without regard to the consequences. Ideology appears to have played no part in the destruction. Ryan is the consummate bureaucrat. A master of the system.

Yet George Ryan has become my first hero of the new millennium. After a string of more than a dozen cases in which sentences of death had been reversed by the courts, Ryan issued a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. But why does this make him a hero? Surely other governors have taken courageous stands. Why does this politician rise to my pantheon of gods?

I have few heroes. My first was Clarence Darrow. When I was a child, my father proudly showed me a small paperback volume entitled "Resist Not Evil," a broadside against capital punishment written by Darrow in the early part of the century. The volume had been autographed by Darrow to his mother, and by her to my father. It formed the core of my credo and although it disappeared many years ago and I have moved several times, I still cannot open a box of books, or look at the shelves in my motherís home without hoping to find it.

Darrowís defense of Leopold and Loeb was part of the milk that became the marrow of my bones.

As I grew older, I learned of the bravery of 19th Century Illinois governor John Altgeld, who pardoned four men, convicted of participating in the Haymarket riots. Later I discovered John Slayton, governor of Georgia in the 1913, who like Altgeld, sacrificed a promising career. Repulsed by the conviction of a Jew, Leo Frank, on trumped up charges in the heat of an anti-Semitic whirlwind, Slayton commuted his death sentence to one of life in prison.**

The battle against capital punishment has a checkered history in this country, having gained some momentum in the spirit of the revolution in the early days of the 19th century. The movement was side tracked during the Civil War. Nevertheless, even in the heat of battle the total finality and injustice of capital punishment was not ignored.

In my fatherís papers, not long after his death over half a century ago, this then little boy found documents relating to the estate of a Civil War general: his will, stocks, bonds, a receipt for a box lunch, including champagne, in Washington D.C. in the 1860's. Fascinating to a 12-year-old boy, but not of much historical interest. And then I came upon a small piece of paper with the heading "War Telegraph." It was written in pencil and bore the signature of one A. Lincoln. It was directed to one general, asking him to convey to another the urgent instruction to "suspend the execution of one Lt. Paul Sullivan of Co .E. 13th by the quickest mode in your power, as there is an interruption on the line."

                Dated Sep 25, 1863.
        To Genl. McCallum


        I have sent to Genl Meade by telegraph
         to suspend the Execution of Paul Sullivan
        of Co. E. 13th Mass which was to be today
         but understanding that there is an interruption
        on the Line may I beg You to Send this to him
         by the quickest mode in Your Power.


                A Lincoln

It would be many years before I learned the significance of those words. Later I learned that the routine punishment for deserters was execution. Lincoln was horrified by this result of the war that split so many brothers. Lincoln was known to have issued many such telegrams, seeking to lessen the inequities of that war. I was haunted by the words "as there is an interruption on the line." Did the message get through? Was Sullivan saved? Only last year I finally learned his fate. I posted questions on the Internet, and heard back at last from someone who had access to a database listing the names of all deserters executed during that war. Sullivanís name did not appear. So it would seem the message got through.

There were others like Altgeld and Slayton and Lincoln who had the courage to prevent individual executions, but still there was resistance to abolition of the death penalty in general. Until 1972, as one western country after another abolished the ultimate sanction, the battle against the punishment had little success. Then following a ruling by the California Supreme Court, the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia raised procedural barriers to the death penalty. It seemed the penalty was finally dead.

For five years the U.S. joined the ranks of civilized nations. Then after a new decision, the bloodletting began again in 1977 with the consensual execution of Gary Gilmore, who went to the gallows with the cry, "Letís do it!" As Steven King Ainsworth said in an excellent article, "A Relic of the Past," appearing in the volume Frontiers of Justice: The Death Penalty, "The Nation had once again resurrected capital punishment and political aspirants raced to see who could kill the most constituents."

The race continues. William Jefferson Clinton raced home as governor of Arkansas, in the midst of his first presidential campaign, to over see the execution of a young defendant of diminished capacity. Governor Bush has emulated Clinton in his own campaign, expressing his certainty that the law has been carried out and that he has never executed an innocent man. Similarly Vice President Gore refuses to call for a moratorium.

What is it that makes excellent politicians refuse to follow Altgeld and Slayton? Why does the public seem to demand more death with such a vengeance and threaten to destroy any politician who seeks to end the barbarity? I confess this had left me baffled until I came upon a speech by Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York. The speech serves as the prologue to Frontiers of Justice.

In this magnificent address, Cuomo muses on how fortunate he was that during his reign as governor, New York had abolished the penalty. He was not called upon to make the kinds of decisions required of Altgeld, Slayton, Clinton and Bush. Still, he was haunted by even the possibility. He discusses the old familiar arguments. Then he recounts the inauguration of the man who defeated him.

Cuomo sat on the dais, politely applauding the pedestrian remarks of his successor. It wasnít much of a speech. And then the governor hit a hot line. It really brought the house down. Fifteen thousand jumped to their feet cheering, waving. Their fists went up. What was the line that roused this crowd? What inspirational words generated such a frenzy? These are the words he said: "The first thing I will do is bring back the death penalty!"

Cuomo was stunned. Of course the crowd responded favorably. This had been a campaign promise of his successor. But why the vehemence? The joy? What was it that they were cheering?

You will notice that I have not recited here the usual arguments for and against the death penalty. We know them well. And they are unpersuasive. My purpose here is not to argue for or against, although it is clear where I stand. What I want to explore is why? Why do Americans feel the way they do? And what is it that can change the tide?

Cuomo probably put his finger on it when he said,

"In the end, I believe it is, ironically, not just a lust for revenge but a desperate expression of a longing for a safer world, a world free of fear. Californians, New Yorkers, Americans everywhere are appalled by the new madness created by drugs, the calculated murders committed by twelve year olds, the audacious atrocity of the crimes they hear about, or may even have seen with their own eyes. When it appears to the people that crime is rampant, when criminals are seen as immune from adequate punishment or even apprehension, well, then people get angry and they try to find a shorthand answer."

Perhaps that is at least part of the answer. Perhaps in a world dominated by slash and burn on the 11:00 news the idea of a death penalty provides some consolation. Some hope that there is order. Even if we know that it doesnít work, even if we know that there is no correlation between the death penalty and violent crime - at least the death penalty stands as a symbol an ideal of order and safety. An idea of justice.

Against these fears, against these hopes, statistics are of little use. Against these emotions, morality based pleas can have little effect. And that is where George Ryan comes in.

Other governors took courageous steps in isolated cases. But those very cases prove to George W and others that the system works. And if you look at each case in isolation it seems that it is so. After all, with respect to each case in which the verdict is set aside, it can be said the system worked. How reassuring that is. Not only do we have the death penalty, but every isolated reversal proves that it is fair. And that is why George Ryan is my hero.

He is my hero precisely because he did not respond to an isolated case of injustice crying out for mercy. He was not persuaded that in one case a miscarriage of justice had crept into the system. He does not oppose the death penalty on moral grounds, or because it is ineffective, or barbarous. He stopped executions simply because the weight of the system came crashing down. Case after case. The numbers showed that the system simply wasnít working. Ryan is not an ideologue. But he understands systems. And when the system isnít working it flatly contradicts the safer world Ė the world free of fear identified by Governor Cuomo as the source of all this anger.

Ryanís bureaucratic response to this systemic problem is free of all the emotion and sanctimony involved in every other argument. It addresses the simple failure of the system. There are those of us who know that even if every case was "correctly" decided we would still oppose the penalty. Our arguments have never succeeded. But there is little fear of such a perfect world. In the meantime, Ryanís rule is the answer.

Perhaps the times are ripe for change. Crime statistics are down. In spite of the late news and TV shows, like Court TVís despicable "Confessions," perhaps we feel a little safer. Perhaps this was a good time for someone like Ryan to look not case by case, but at the flaws in the wholesale murder-by-government operation we have tolerated, even demanded for so many years. Maybe one day Al Gore will look at the big picture too. But that may be too much to ask! ***

*Ryan was subsequently indicted and convicted on a number of charges. See this Wikipedia article detailing his scandals trial and conviction, which is contained in a longer piece on his life, including the capital punishment battle.
**Author Harry Barnard, in his excellent book Eagle Forgotten questioned whether the pardons granted by Altgeld were the primary cause of his eventual political demise.
***Senator Barack Obama recently joined the list of presidential candidates who cannot forswear support for capital punishment.

The following volume was especially useful in preparing this article
 and is an excellent resource:
Frontiers of Justice - Volume 1: The Death Penalty
 Biddle Publishing Company 1997.
 PO Box1305 #103
Brunswick, ME 04011
207-833-5016  

This article first appeared in the September, 2000 issue of WindoWatch.
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Updated 7/20/2008 10:31:00 AM