If you sent to central casting for a Midwestern conservative, they'd send back Governor George Ryan of Illinois. With his white hair, plain business suit and heartland directness, Ryan is nobody's image of a crusading criminal-justice reformer. Not even his own. "I mean, I am a Republican pharmacist from Kankakee. All of a sudden I've got gays and lesbians by my side. African-Americans. Senators from Italy, groups from around the world. It's a little surprising."
A year ago in January, Ryan took a step unprecedented in the history of American capital punishment: He issued an open-ended moratorium on executions in Illinois. The immediate impetus: the exoneration of thirteen death-row inmates. Ryan's predecessor, Governor Jim Edgar, called those exonerations proof that "the system works." Ryan saw something different.
Ryan's moratorium received international attention, but his journey to that decision remained a largely private matter. He did not make the decision in a vacuum–legislators, lawyers and the media played a big role–but what led him to break so definitively with the bipartisan pro-execution consensus, and where his thinking has gone since, strikes at the core of the shifting politics of death.
Ryan, whose family owned several neighborhood drugstores in Kankakee for forty years, joined the Illinois legislature in the 1970s as a staunch law-and-order man. "I believed some crimes were so heinous that the only proper way of protecting society was execution. I saw a nation in the grip of increasing crime rates; and tough sentences, more jails, the death penalty–that was good government." In 1977, after the Supreme Court lifted its ban on execution, a bill to reinstate the death penalty came before the Statehouse in Springfield. When an anti-death-penalty legislator asked his colleagues to consider whether they personally would be willing to throw the switch, Ryan rose to his feet with "unequivocal words of support" for execution–words he now regrets. The truth, though, was that Ryan never thought about capital punishment much, before that vote or for more than twenty years afterward, except as an abstract idea of justice. "I supported the death penalty, I believed in the death penalty, I voted for the death penalty."
In September 1998, as Ryan was running for governor, an Illinois inmate named Anthony Porter, a man with an IQ of 51, was scheduled to die for a 1982 murder. Two days before Porter's execution date his lawyers won a temporary reprieve. Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess turned his investigative-reporting students loose on the case, and by February the evidence they obtained left the newly inaugurated Governor Ryan reeling: a videotaped confession by the real killer, freeing Porter after eighteen years. "I was caught completely off-guard. Maybe I shouldn't have been, but I was. That mentally retarded man came within two days of execution, and but for those students Anthony Porter would have been dead and buried. I felt jolted into re-examining everything I believed in." At first, a conflicted Ryan waffled on a full-fledged review of Illinois's capital apparatus, but ultimately he endorsed one concrete initiative: an $18 million capital-crimes-litigation fund to insure that defendants like Porter, as well as prosecutors, have access to investigative resources.