Wednesday, July 19, 2006

George Ryan

On Monday, I was sitting at the lunch table waiting for my co-workers to get through the cafeteria line when this guy came up and asked me to watch his laptop while he went through the lunch line. I guess he thought he knew me or something but I definitely didn't know him. But I agreed to watch his laptop and after he got his food he came and sat down with us. I didn't mind although it was certainly bizarre. He was a visitor from Argonne National Lab, here for a workshop of some sort. I had a good time chatting with him about all things Illinois, such as the current political situation and the general state of things in my former home state. As it turns out, the current governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, is running for re-election against Republican candidate Judy Baar Topinka, and he has a pretty good chance of winning, because he's managed to associate her with corrupt former governor George Ryan. So then I asked him how ol' George Ryan was doing, seeing as when I left Illinois in September, he was scheduled to stand for trial soon.

For those of you playing along at home and lacking knowledge about Illinois politics, George Ryan was Illinois' Secretary of State for several years before he was governor. While he was secretary of state, he supposedly used state employees to work on his campaign on the state's dime, embezzled lots of money from his campaign funds, and traded bribes for leases and commercial drivers' licenses, some of the many charges against him. A truck driver with one of these undeserved licenses got into an accident in 1994 that killed six children. In 1998, George Ryan was elected governor, much to our consternation, even without knowledge of these allegations against him. Basically there was not much of a selection in the gubernatorial race, but at least he seemed to be the lesser of the two evils. Still, it was kind of scary because both candidates were vehemently pro-death-penalty and anti-choice.

But when he got in office, George Ryan seemed to have quite a change of heart. His tough stance softened, particularly after he began to see the inherent corruption in the justice system. Of the inmates on Illinois Death Row, thirteen had been put to death and twelve had been exonerated. In 2000, George Ryan placed a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, so that the system could be studied. He was still in favor of the death penalty, but he realized that the system did not ensure that the penalty was given to the right person.

Ryan's tenure as governor was marred by allegations of corruption. Prompted by investigations into the 1994 accident, scandals in the Secretary of State office were uncovered. As the investigations continued, people closer and closer to him began to be convicted and his popularity declined. He decided not to seek re-election as it became increasingly obvious that the investigation would soon reach his closest associates and ultimately him. Days before he left office, George Ryan commuted all the sentences of the inmates on Illinois' Death Row to life in prison.

As it turns out, George Ryan was found guilty on all 22 counts! He is due for sentencing sometime next month, and faces up to 20 years in prison. I doubt that they will give this 72-year-old man twenty years, but I think he will probably be sentenced to serve some time in prison. I am glad that justice will be served.

I have mixed feelings about George Ryan. He is obviously a deeply troubled man, who, despite embezzling millions of dollars, squandered it all. He was a man who evidently never thought through the consequences of giving out drivers' licenses to people who didn't know how to drive. But, to his credit, he was also a man who kept growing and learning, who realized that the death penalty system in Illinois was unjust, and used his power to bring the issue out into the open and fix it as best he could.

Some of his critics say he took on the death penalty system to distract from the scandals. Obviously I have never met George Ryan so I cannot be 100% sure, but I really don't think this is the case. I think he's not that disingenuous. I think he's an imperfect human being, just like the rest of us. It's so easy to categorize people as "good" or "bad," but I think George Ryan is hard to place in either category. He's a prime example of a person who is not an inherently evil person, but has performed some evil acts. No one is pure saint or pure sinner.

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