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Editorial: Ryan’s redemption

George Ryan

George Ryan

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Updated: March 1, 2013 7:40PM

Former Gov. George Ryan probably isn’t making any big plans just yet.

Hugging his grandchildren, sitting with his children and enjoying the quiet of his own home after more than five years in prison are, we’re quite sure, more than enough for now.

But when it’s time, Ryan likely will get re-involved with death penalty issues, his lawyer, former Gov. Jim Thompson, said Wednesday after Ryan’s release to home confinement.

That sounds just right to us.

For all of Ryan’s misdeeds, Illinois’ former governor did right when it came to the death penalty.

And he did right, we think, for the right reasons.

Critics say Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in Illinois in 2000, and then commuted more than 160 death sentences to life in prison in 2003, to earn points as federal investigators were bearing down.

We didn’t see it that way. Ryan had little to gain with the moratorium. Public support for executions was strong at the time.

We saw a man, an avowed death penalty supporter, acknowledge gnawing doubts.

David Protess, president of the Chicago Innocence Project, explains Ryan’s transformation best in a powerful piece posted on the Huffington Post on Wednesday. Protess wrote of a phone call he received from Ryan in 1999, after an innocent man, Anthony Porter, was released from Death Row 50 hours shy of execution.

“He was horrified that Porter had almost been executed on his watch,” Protess wrote. “ ‘I would have been responsible for the death of an innocent man,’ Ryan whispered. He went on to say that he had been staunchly in favor of the death penalty, even co-sponsoring Illinois’ capital punishment law when he was a state legislator. And he had opposed the growing calls for a moratorium on executions, despite several other high-profile exonerations. ‘But now, I’m not so sure,’ Ryan said.”

On Wednesday, Thompson, a man whom we respect for his loyalty to Ryan, called the former governor’s release “another step in a long journey for George Ryan.”

One step forward, a huge tumble backward. And, we hope, a final step forward for the cause of justice for all.

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