ILLINOIS GOV. GEORGE RYAN leaves office tomorrow, but to the last he is promoting what has become, for a Midwestern Republican governor, a most unlikely signature issue: reform of the death penalty. Mr. Ryan has undertaken an exhaustive review of the state's capital convictions, and he now describes the state's system as "terribly broken." On Friday he pardoned four death row inmates who had been tortured into confessing -- "four more men," he called them, "who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die by the state for crimes the courts should have seen they did not commit." Yesterday he announced that he is taking an even more fateful step: commuting all 156 remaining death sentences, because, as he put it, "our capital system is haunted by the demon of error -- error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die." Mr. Ryan's tenure in office has not been a happy one; he leaves office under the ethical cloud of a continuing federal corruption probe. But his willingness to confront the magnitude of the failure of his state's criminal justice system commands respect. On this issue, he leaves Illinois a better place -- and a model for the nation as to how a state can begin facing the problem of the death penalty.
That model, alas, seems to hold little interest for Maryland Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. It's early, but Mr. Ehrlich thus far has demonstrated a breathtaking lack of concern for the evident problems with capital punishment in Maryland. Even before the release of a University of Maryland study of geographical and racial disparities in capital punishment's application, he pledged to lift the current moratorium on executions no matter what the study showed. After the study was released last week, demonstrating that race and geography play huge roles in determining who gets sentenced to die, Mr. Ehrlich said he was reviewing its methodology, and he reiterated that he means to consider death sentences case by case.
Such a cavalier attitude is inappropriate for a man who will wield power over life and death. If the new governor continues to ignore the study results, he will be saying that it doesn't trouble him that Maryland prosecutors effectively value white lives more highly than black lives. Pretending this unfairness doesn't exist won't make it disappear. Mr. Ehrlich may be too busy just now planning his inauguration, but he should take time out to learn from the outgoing governor a few states west.