George Ryan, until last month the Republican governor of Illinois, has revolutionized the debate over capital punishment. His genius, such as it is, has been to ignore the great moral and philosophic questions that surround the topic and focus on the pragmatic ones. Ryan’s brand of argument has turned the anti–death penalty movement into a nonpartisan cause because, as pundit Glen Reynolds puts it, capital punishment is a government program that doesn’t work.
Ryan has never questioned whether murderers deserve to be executed, or whether the state has the right to take human life. He has simply argued that the state’s way of imposing the death penalty is so flawed that it must be shut down. The system is haunted by the “demon of error,” Ryan said—“error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.”