“Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error,” Illinois Governor George Ryan said on January 11, clearing his state’s death row as his final act of office. Other executive orders, like Harry Truman’s integration of the military, have been more sweeping, and a few, like President Ford’s pre-emptive pardon of Richard Nixon, even more controversial. But never has a governor or President been so visibly moved to action by systemic failure in the criminal justice system, and never before has capital punishment been thrust so squarely into the spotlight by a single politician.

What Ryan has done, first, is to save 167 lives and probably many more. His commutation of those death sentences to a maximum of life in prison makes any future execution in Illinois–formerly site of one of the nation’s largest death rows–at best a distant prospect. Ryan’s successor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, is trying to play both sides of the issue, claiming to favor keeping the moratorium on executions while reforming the state’s capital justice system. But if Illinois juries start handing out new death sentences tomorrow, even a single execution is years away–the average time span from sentence to execution in Illinois has been thirteen years. By then, it’s conceivable that Illinois or the nation will have abandoned capital punishment entirely.

The significance of this moment rests not just with the commutations but in Ryan’s journey. This conservative Republican pharmacist-turned-pol has recounted how the exoneration of mentally retarded death-row inmate Anthony Porter–falsely accused of a double murder and saved only by the investigative efforts of college students–began the nagging doubt in his mind. Less obvious, perhaps, is the role prosecutors and pro-capital punishment legislators played in his decision. After the Porter case, Ryan named a blue-ribbon commission, which proposed reforms in Illinois capital laws, and Ryan went to his legislature three times asking for a narrowing of the death penalty. But the legislators were unwilling to modify a system under which seventeen death-row defendants were falsely convicted and more than thirty were represented by disbarred or suspended lawyers.

Just how much of this is tied up in Ryan’s own legal and political troubles is a matter for conjecture. Though Ryan is surrounded by a corrupt administration and faces possible indictment himself in a license-peddling scandal, anyone who speaks with him finds little evidence that his stand on the death penalty is anything but sincere. In October, a wrenching series of individual commutation hearings brought forth the details of death-row defendants’ crimes and new facts about their convictions, and Ryan–long a supporter of victims’ rights–publicly wavered. It’s hard to think of a more conscientious use of a governor’s power to pardon and commute as a court of last resort, when the customary checks and balances have utterly failed.

The lengthy efforts of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, the Chicago Tribune and others to examine the minute particulars of the Illinois capital system have paid off, not just in the commutation of local sentences but in national awareness that the scandal of capital justice is scarcely limited to Illinois. In Congress, Senator Patrick Leahy’s Innocence Protection Act and national moratoriums sponsored by Senator Russell Feingold and Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. languish. Ryan’s action makes it easier to change that. Attention now turns to Maryland, where incoming Governor Robert Ehrlich promises to lift his predecessor’s moratorium, and to new national campaigns against the execution of juveniles, led by Amnesty International and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Ryan’s action also resonates because in a personal and profound way he exemplifies the discomfort growing numbers of Americans have with capital punishment. The many Illinois prosecutors who predict a widespread backlash miss the crucial point that when it comes to the death penalty, the views of Americans are in the midst of a profound change. Judges newly challenge capital punishment’s constitutionality, dozens of cities have passed moratorium resolutions and even the new pro-capital punishment governor of Virginia believes his state is disturbingly resistant to death-row-innocence cases.

No backlash will end these doubts, and that is why Ryan’s commutations change death-penalty politics forever.