Monday, August 02, 2004

Part Two: Questions and Answers

Part two from NCADP's Kristen Bell:

I wanted to ask Governor Ryan two basic questions: What really made him start questioning the death penalty system after being a capital punishment advocate for so long? And why does he think other governors are not doing as he has done?

Ryan began to question the death penalty system when he read about Anthony Porter, a mentally retarded man who was exonerated after journalism students proved his innocence after 17 years on Illinois’ death row.

“But what if you had not been governor when you read about Porter?,” I asked, feeling a bit braver. “Would you have been similarly concerned if you had simply been a citizen at the time?”

Ryan responded that his position as governor did make him feel particularly responsible for the state’s death penalty system. It was that feeling of heavy responsibility coupled with Porter’s case which really made him start questioning the machinery of death in Illinois.

“There are plenty of Anthony Porters in this country,” I thought to myself. “If only every citizen could be made to feel that same weight of responsibility, we might start to take a serious look at the system that produces those Porters.”

On to question two.

The reason why most governors don’t take a serious look at the death penalty system, Ryan said, is that they feel a great deal of political pressure to maintain an image of being tough on crime. In a country that generally favors the death penalty, a record of executions certainly comes in handy during election years. Ryan himself was on his way out of office when he made his blanket commutation.

“How do we overcome that hurdle of political pressure?” I asked.

“Young people like you will carry the torch,” he responded. He added that the younger generation has different opinions about punishment and issues of social justice. When that generation comes of age, they will reform the death penalty system or abolish it if need be.

Thinking about my peers at university and looking around at the average age of staff here at the NCADP, I think Governor Ryan may be right.

At least I hope so.

“It will take time and the changes probably won’t happen in my lifetime,” Ryan said at the end of our talk. “I did all I could in my time.”

Then we switched roles and he asked me a question: “What will you do when you graduate?”

I guess it’s my turn to answer.

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