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By Sheldon Drobny

Governor Ryan's courageous commutation of the death sentence for those on death row in Illinois sends a wonderful message to those who have worked against capital punishment.  Like Richard Nixon's role in opening negotiations with Communist China and the Soviet Union, only a Republican could have made such a move.  Any Democrat granting these commutations would have been accused of being soft on crime.

The question is, will the Democrats be smart enough to understand their true vulnerability on this issue?

The Party’s reaction to the Willie Horton debacle in the 1988 Bush-Dukakis campaign was to form the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) as a law and order, Republican lite think tank.  The DLC reasoned that Democrats could not win a Presidential election unless they appealed to the Reagan Democrats for whom law and order was an overriding issue.  Bill Clinton and others began to embrace the crime issue, perhaps more as a political strategy rather than a matter of principle.  During the 1992 campaign, Clinton even interrupted his campaign schedule to advance the execution of a mentally retarded person.  Since that time, The Supreme Court has ruled that execution of mental defectives may be a constitutional violation of the Bill of Rights’ “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibition.

The DLC used law and order and other right wing issues to advance a platform that has been a disaster for the Democrats.  Bill Clinton won the 1992 election because of a soft economy and third-party candidate Ross Perot.  That win was not because of Clinton’s stance on the death penalty, or any other of his centrist strategies.  But the DLC took credit for Clinton’s victory, and seems to have started believing its own press releases.  As a result, in 2003 the Democrats find themselves in the minority of all branches of government for the first time since God knows when.

Quite a success story!

I have talked to Al Fromm and others from the DLC, and despite Democrats’ failures they still believe that Al Gore and many other Democrats are too progressive.  So let us ignore them and move on to discuss how Democrats can recapture their base, and perhaps even gain some votes from ambivalent independents.

Governor Ryan made a lot of sense, and mentioned things in his speech that could be useful to Democrats.  Ryan quoted studies showing that the death sentence, rather than a sentence of life in prison, is 3½ times more likely when the murder victim is white rather than black. He also pointed out the statistics of prosecutorial misconduct against poor and indigent suspects, as well as the many instances inadequate counsel.  Ryan came to the conclusion that imposition of the death penalty was hopelessly flawed.  He commuted the death sentences of everyone currently on death row in the state.

I do not believe that the death penalty is a major issue for the majority of the electorate.  If so, Democrats can gain political capital by having a more humane approach to this issue, which the rest of the civilized world has recognized for years is medieval.  We can protect the rights of victims without offering them the death of the criminal as retribution.  Ryan mentioned this possibility in his speech.  The only satisfaction victims can look forward to now is the execution of the perpetrator. Considering the average length of time between sentencing and execution, the agony for the families of both the victim and perpetrator must be unbearable.

Ryan pointed out that states should allocate significant amounts to pay the families for the wrongful deaths caused by these murderers.  The immediate and understandable impulse toward retribution by victims will not bring their loved ones back.  What victims need is financial assistance, to get their broken lives back together so they can heal their wounds.  A subsidy for victims would really put the emphasis on victims rights.  I think most victims would agree that healing their pain through productive means would be more beneficial than years of waiting to see the alleged murderer of their loved one die.  Especially since during that entire wait, the condemned person has all his survival and medical needs met, while the families are left out in the cold.

It is the victims who suffer cruel and unusual punishment.

Many people may say that Governor Ryan had nothing to lose by making this bold gesture, because he was just about to leave office.  I disagree.  The courageous move Ryan made was suspending the death penalty in Illinois three years ago, when DNA evidence proved that some of the people on death row were innocent.  Who knows how many innocent people were put to death before DNA testing?  According to former Texas Governor George W. Bush, not a single innocent person has ever been put to death in that state.  On the contrary, Mr. Unelected President, based on the statistics, it is certain that more than a few innocent people were executed.  And what have you done for the families of the victims?

It is time for America to come out of the Dark Ages and join the rest of the civilized world in banning capital punishment. 

As Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”


Sheldon Drobny is co-founder of Air America Radio, providing talk radio for the majority of Americans.

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Last changed: December 13, 2009