FORMER Illinois Gov. George Ryan's 11th-hour commutations of the death sentences of 167 inmates on Death Row certainly establishes his legacy as this country's most visible opponent of capital punishment. In the process, however, he spared the lives of some of his state's most vile killers and rendered meaningless the deliberations and decisions of juries and appellate judges who studied each case far more than he presumably did.
To be sure, Illinois is a state that has had to endure the national embarrassment of 17 wrongful Death Row convictions in recent years. Our strong advocacy of the death penalty depends on the establishment of guilt beyond doubt, and if DNA technology or some other means determines that a capital punishment conviction was wrong, it must be set aside.
However, one of the reasons it takes so long for an execution to occur in this country is the lengthy appeals process and the careful reexamination of the facts, the quality of the defendant's defense counsel, and other factors, to make certain guilt is not an issue. There is plenty of time for any new evidence to surface.
That process has become ridiculously lengthy and cumbersome - 15 to 20 years in some cases - but there can be no denying it is thorough. For Mr. Ryan to issue a blanket commutation order just hours before leaving office suggests that he gave no such careful review to each and every case. If that is indeed true, one wonders whether a legal challenge could be mounted by the citizens of Illinois to their former governor's action.
It also is fair to question Mr. Ryan's motivation and timing. He remains in the midst of an ongoing criminal investigation of his campaign and his administration, and still faces the possibility of indictment, which is why he did not seek re-election.
It's interesting that Mr. Ryan, a Republican, embraces a position that does not endear him to a large segment of the country or to his own political party. Opposition to the death penalty has traditionally been a Democratic position. Will the right-wing commentators - Rush Limbaugh and his clones - disavow the guy?
No implications for Ohio attach to the Ryan decision in Illinois. Executions should continue here to the extent that the justice system, and the public, are convinced of guilt. In the meantime, George Ryan's career in elected politics is over.