Sunday, January 19, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist

Illinois governor saves us from ourselves

Forgive me, but I'm about to speak heresy.

Blame the outgoing governor of Illinois, who last week emptied his state's death row. George Ryan commuted to life in prison the death sentences of 167 condemned criminals.

The result: a firestorm of criticism, much of it from those who have lost loved ones to violent crime. Our instinct is to give great weight to what those people have to say. To listen with great reverence.

But — and here's the heresy — it occurs to me that maybe we've already listened with too much reverence.

I bow to no one in my empathy for people whose lives have been affected by violent crime. You see, I live with one. My wife's brother Ted was killed in a random shooting 10 years ago.

I still remember her saying, "What? What?" over and over again into the receiver when we got that awful 3 a.m. phone call. It was as if words had suddenly ceased to have meaning.

I have stood with her at his grave. I have awakened in the middle of the night to find her wide awake. I have held her helplessly as she wept.

So I know a little something about this. And one of the things I know is that there's nothing I would not have done to spare her that pain. Or to get justice for her.

That's the problem. Because we all feel that way, don't we? We all empathize, we all suffer with them, we all feel there's nothing we would not or should not do for people whose grief is so immense. And if they want, if they need, to see a killer killed, so be it.

In the face of their demands on our collective conscience, it can seem insensitive or even uncaring to voice doubt about that process. Yet, if you are intellectually honest about it, how can you not?

The answer is simple: Avoid intellectual honesty at all costs.

Consider the recent study indicating that the state of Maryland has been choosing whom to execute based on color of skin and place of residence. You'd think that would give a fair man pause. Yet, new Gov. Robert Ehrlich has shrugged it off, keeping an ill-advised campaign promise to lift a death-penalty moratorium imposed by his predecessor.

The difference between George Ryan and the Robert Ehrlichs of the world is this: Somehow, Ryan reached a point where conscience would no longer allow him to ignore what he saw. Three years ago, Ryan, a former death-penalty supporter, suspended state executions. He was stung by the fact that since 1977, 13 people had been freed from the Illinois death house after they were found to have been wrongly convicted.

Now, the other shoe drops. "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," Ryan said last week.

Surely, that makes sense. If you owned a machine — a car, a computer, a microwave oven — that was as prone to failure as capital punishment, you'd have ditched it a long time ago. Yet, we insist that this broken hunk of junk can somehow be made to function properly if we are just persistent and ingenious enough. And never mind all the people who are freed from death row because a cop lied, a witness erred, a lawyer bungled, the system failed.

Killing killers illustrates our respect for the sanctity of life, death-penalty advocates argue with oily, Orwellian rhetoric. And you look at this poor slob who just spent 20 years under sentence of death for something he didn't do and you wonder, what about his life? Doesn't it have sanctity, too?

By any logical standard, life without parole should be the highest punishment in our legal arsenal. It's less expensive than the death penalty and it is reversible in the event of error.

So where's the logic in state-sanctioned executions? There isn't any. There's only the blinding emotion that says if we don't kill killers, we betray the victims. We show ourselves to be soft.

And how silly is that? By sentencing 167 people to the slow death of the 5-by-12 cell, George Ryan did not save killers from justice.

But he just may have saved us from ourselves.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is:


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