At great political peril, George Ryan did the right thing.
Not to canonize the man. After all, the then-governor of Illinois was later imprisoned on corruption charges.
But that doesn’t change the fact that, in 2000, stung that 13 inmates had been exonerated and freed from death row in the previous 23 years, Ryan committed an act of profound moral courage, imposing a moratorium on capital punishment. In 2003, in the waning days of his term, he one-upped himself, commuting every death sentence in his state.
Recalling what Ryan once did provides interesting context as Floridians and death penalty opponents around the country wait to see what Gov. Rick Scott will do.
Florida’s chief executive has on his desk awaiting his signature – or, dare we hope, his veto – a piece of legislation called the Timely Justice Act, passed by his state legislature in the apparent belief Florida is not killing people fast enough.
There are 404 people awaiting execution in Florida. We learn from a report by my colleague, Mary Ellen Klas, that 155 of them have been there longer than 20 years, and 10 have been there longer than 35 years. The average wait: 13 years.
The act would require the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days after a review by the state Supreme Court. Execution would have to take place within 180 days. Additionally, the bill bars attorneys from using certain defense strategies. Granted, it also contains provisions favorable to inmates, including one penalizing lawyers who provide ineffective counsel, but that fig leaf does not mitigate the danger of a bill that, in effect, creates a fast track to the death chamber.
This measure, I feel constrained to point out, is brought to you by the same legislative body that brought you the ill-conceived Stand Your Ground law that has lately led people to call Florida the “gunshine state.” This latest sop to frontier justice is necessary, we’re told, because, as an editorial by Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers puts it, delayed executions are “an affront to justice – especially for victims’ families.”
Beg pardon – and I know this will be controversial – but I’m tired of hearing what we owe victims’ families. I speak from no deficit of compassion for them. I am, for goodness sake, a member of a victim’s family, albeit his extended family. R.I.P., Ted McCoy, my brother-in-law, who was murdered 20 years ago in Los Angeles.
That said, there’s something … uncomfortably barbarous in this idea that we as a society owe those families blood as recompense for the pain they have endured.
More to the point, there’s this: Since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-’70s, Florida has executed 75 people. But it has exonerated 24, many of whom spent more than a decade on death row. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Florida has the highest error rate in the country.
So how can a state that gets it wrong at least one time in every four want to speed up the process? Does no one care about the increased likelihood of executing someone who committed no crime?
We are always called upon to be solicitous of the pain suffered by victims’ families. Where is our solicitude for innocent people, wrong place, wrong time, people – usually indigent people of color – who are rushed, perjured, bumbled, erred and “oopsed” onto death row? Why does their pain affect us less? Why are they less deserving of our compassion? Are they not victims, too?
To his lasting credit, Illinois’ former governor came to recognize capital punishment as the moral sinkhole it is. It is probably too much to hope Florida’s governor will do the same. But at a minimum he must veto this mistake in waiting. The bill his legislature has sent him imposes something that may indeed be timely.
But it sure as hell is not justice.