George Ryan, former governor of Illinois, supported the death penalty — until he was asked if he would throw the switch.
Ryan, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize after releasing the prisoners on Illinois’ death row in January, spoke out against capital punishment at the House of Bishops Friday afternoon.
He also shared his struggle with advocating, rejecting and finally declaring a moratorium on the death penalty.
“I was raised in a conservative, Republican town and thought it was the thing to do,” Ryan said. “In all my campaigns for public office, I was never asked about it. I just thought it was part of the system.”
His interest was piqued when a death penalty opponent asked him in the 1970s if he would feel comfortable “throwing the switch” that ends an inmate’s life.
But it was 30 years later — during Ryan’s tenure as Illinois’ governor — that he discovered an “unfair system.”
Ryan learned that nearly half of the 300 capital cases in Illinois had been reversed: “you had a better chance of flipping a coin than making the right decision [about an inmate’s guilt],” he said.
But Ryan wavered in his decision to free the inmates.
“I have to live with myself and everything that I do,” he said. “It was a difficult decision, and at times I wasn’t sure it was the right decision.”
His conviction has increased with time. Six months after his decision, Ryan is “completely sure” he did the right thing.
But the decision enraged victims’ families, many of whom call for vengeance and retribution for their irreplaceable loss.
“We spent a lot of time with during the deliberations [about emptying death row] with the families of the victims. I heard their stories,” Ryan said. “The problem is that the average stay on death row is 12 to 15 years. [The families] get up every day, hoping that the perpetrator will get executed, and they are disappointed.”
Three days before he left office, Ryan decided to free Illinois’ death row inmates – and erase the risk of having to exonerate them later.
“I realized if I didn’t make a decision that I could live with for the rest of my life, I would be haunted by it.”