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A Welcome Halt to Executions

In a welcome but somewhat belated act of conscience, Illinois Gov. George Ryan announced a moratorium Jan. 31 on executions in his state. Illinois has been ground zero for the death penalty battle: over the past 13 years, 13 prisoners have been released from death row on the grounds of their innocence, more than have been executed during the same period. Although Ryan had consistently defended the death penalty until now, another exoneration last month and a scathing review of the justice system by the Chicago Tribune apparently convinced him to change his mind. In a statement that we should expect our political leaders to echo, Ryan said, "Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate."

Ryan has been lamentably slow to recognize the death penalty's failings. One death row inmate, Anthony Porter, came within two days of his execution. When Porter was released based on evidence uncovered by a Northwestern University professor and his journalism students, the governor's spokesperson said that "the system worked." But the facts were too strong for Ryan to ignore: according to the Tribune series, almost half of all capital convictions or sentences were overturned on appeal for trial errors, 46 death row inmates had been convicted on jailhouse-informant testimony and 33 inmates had been represented by an attorney who was at one point disbarred or suspended. On Jan. 31, a spokesperson for the governor said that "It's clear that the system is broken."

The move demonstrates how even the most ardent advocates of the death penalty can recognize the danger of wrongful convictions and act to prevent them. No one favors the death penalty for innocent people. Hopefully Illinois' action will have consequences nationwide; one especially hopes that Gov. George W. Bush's Texas, which executes more people than any other state, and Gov. Jeb Bush's Florida, which has identified more innocent death row inmates than more than any other state, will follow suit. Ryan's example shows that a politician, even one who has defended the death penalty, can still have the courage to govern by principle.

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