George Ryan is dismissive of people who disagree with him about the death penalty. "Americans should come to their senses," he said in a recent newspaper interview.
Unfortunately for Ryan, when it comes to telling Americans how to think about moral issues, he has a credibility problem.
Ryan is an 80-year-old former Illinois governor who is now free to speak after completing five years in prison for corruption and another year of federal supervision after his release. But it's not the fact that he's an ex-con that makes it hard to take his desire to be a reformer seriously. Americans are quick to forgive, under the right circumstances.
But the right circumstances usually involve some measure of repentance, and Ryan shows little of that in recent remarks to reporters. Rather, he called the U.S. justice system "corrupt", and claims he was prosecuted in part because of his efforts as governor to end the death penalty (Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois in 2000 and commuted the sentences of all 167 inmates on Illinois' death row two days before leaving office in 2003).
"It put a target on my back when I did what I did," Ryan said. "It certainly didn't win me any favor with the federal authorities."
Ryan also refuses to apologize for the actions that led to his conviction. "I've spent five years in apology," he bristles. "I paid the price they asked me to pay."
Ryan was convicted in 2003 of racketeering, bribery, extortion, money laundering and tax fraud. He was found guilty of steering state contracts and leases to cronies while secretary of state and later governor and receiving vacations and gifts in return. He also was accused of halting a probe of secretary of state employees operating a scheme in which unqualified truck drivers received licenses in return for bribes.
In fact the entire investigation of Ryan began with the probe of an accident in which one of those unqualified truck drivers killed a pastor's wife and six children in a crash in Wisconsin.
At trial, proof also was submitted that Ryan accepted a $3,185 check from a lobbyist to pay for a band that played for his daughter's wedding. His attorneys also stipulated at trial that all five of Ryan's daughters received illegal payments from his campaign fund and did little to no work for the campaign.
Ryan has filed numerous appeals, all of which have upheld his conviction, and continues to assert his actions were not criminal. For someone like that to lecture other Americans about the need to "come to their senses" on the death penalty doesn't hold much sway.
We have our own qualms about the death penalty, although we continue to support it in a few egregious cases. It is a subject that should continue to be weighed and debated. But we think George Ryan's belief that he has the moral authority to be a national leader of that conversation is far-fetched given the road he has chosen.