International Information Programs
Office of Research Issue Focus Foreign Media Reaction

January 24, 2003

January 24, 2003




**  Europeans hailed Illinois Governor Ryan's commutation of death sentences.

**  Some said the U.S.' capital punishment system fuels "transatlantic differences" and highlights its "global isolation on capital punishment." 

**  Many alleged that capital punishment had "no significant effects on crime levels."



Ryan 'set a fine example for the U.S. to follow'--  French and Norwegian observers emphasized how Governor Ryan has "written his name with capital letters into American history" with his "brave and wise" decision.  Several surmised that "America is beginning to have doubts about the death penalty," with the liberal Irish Times hailing "an important boost to the U.S. moratorium movement."  Germany's center-left Sueddeutsche Zeitung cautioned that Ryan's "mass parole...attracted greater attention in Europe than in the U.S." and only sought to divert attention away from a "looming probe of alleged fraud."  Some, though critical of "a medieval and inhuman form of sanctions," acknowledged that "the U.S. legal system will continue to know capital punishment."  Croatia's mass-circulation Jutarnji list doubted that Ryan's decision would "cause President Bush to waver at all" in his support of the death penalty. 


Some despaired over the continuing 'incompatibility of values'--  Spain's left-of-center El Pais said capital punishment "separates the two sides of the Atlantic, with practical repercussions on judicial cooperation."  Australia's liberal Age lamented how the U.S.' "claim to being a champion of human rights and a repository of civilized values is called into question" by its use of the death penalty.  Emphasizing the philosophical difference between the U.S. and elsewhere, another Australian daily noted that "Ryan's decision has drawn worldwide praise and stern local condemnation."  The liberal Toronto Star, among other papers, lumped the U.S. in with "China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iran" as countries that engage in the "business of state-sanctioned killing." 


Many lament the 'tragedy' and 'proven error' in this 'barbaric punishment method'--  Norway's Aftenposten reflected a common conviction that "the death penalty...doesn't have the intended preventive effect," and Berlin's right-of-center Die Welt more bluntly declared, "The death penalty as a deterrent has failed."  Many German papers focused on how "the death penalty is un-American because it postulates the infallibility of the state institutions."  Other European dailies emphasized "judicial errors" in the U.S.' system of capital punishment.  Britain's liberal Guardian termed it "arbitrarily and inconsistently imposed."  Only a few editorials supported the death penalty, including one from the conservative Australian which argued, "Even the toughest criminals become remarkably docile once separated from society by six feet of soil."

EDITOR:  Ben Goldberg

EDITOR'S NOTE:  This analysis is based on 25 reports from 13 countries over 5-22 January 2003.  Editorial excerpts from each country are listed from the most recent date.




GREAT BRITAIN:  "Death Penalty Gets The Chop In Illinois"


The liberal Guardian opined (1/14):  "By commuting the sentences of all 167 "death row" inmates in Illinois, Governor George Ryan has set a fine example for the entire US to follow. Mr Ryan, a Republican, supported the death penalty when he first took office. But a series of shocking miscarriages led him to declare a moratorium. An inquiry found that, as elsewhere, the death penalty in Illinois is arbitrarily and inconsistently imposed, that black people are disproportionately penalised, that juvenile and mentally retarded defendants are denied sufficient protections, that legal counsel for the accused is often of poor quality, and that evidential standards are low.  Thirty-eight of the 50 US states retain the death penalty. But the national trend is inexorably against. Since 1998, the number of death sentences has halved and the reversal rate on appeal is 68%. In a country where politicians talk a lot about the importance of doing the right thing, Mr Ryan just did it. He is a hero."


FRANCE:  “Death Up-Close”


Left-of-center Le Monde editorialized (1/13):  “Governor Ryan is not the only man who has changed his opinion on the death penalty....  For the first time since 1973 the number of death row inmates in the U.S. has diminished, a sign that many questions are being asked in penitentiaries....  Because the legal system in the U.S. is different from Europe’s, because the victims’ rights are more protected and because the concept of moral order--supreme punishment for the supreme act of evil--is stronger in the U.S., the abolitionists’ progress in the U.S. is more complex. Sept. 11 and a more conservative Attorney General could have slowed the movement. But this has not been the case....  We must salute all those who have provided an impetus to the debate by underscoring a number of judicial errors. We must also listen to those experts who invite France to look into our own legal and prison systems.”


“The Death Penalty And America’s Doubt”


Pierre Rousselin wrote in right-of-center Le Figaro (1/13):  “Europe has always had a hard time understanding America’s position on the death penalty. This misunderstanding has also fueled what is commonly called transatlantic differences. It feeds anti-American feelings in our intellectuals and complicates judicial cooperation between our two continents....  The Americans themselves are divided on the issue...but it would be simplistic to summarize the debate based on the image given by Bush’s Texas....  Some might say that Governor Ryan’s decision was intended to improve his image. Its impact is nevertheless great....  It is too early to say whether Illinois will serve as an example. But already in the past two years there have been fewer executions in the U.S. America is beginning to have doubts about the death penalty.”


“Step by Step Against the Death Penalty”


Dominique Quinio observed in Catholic La Croix (1/13):  “Governor Ryan’s gesture is one more stone brought to support the abolitionists’ efforts in the U.S., even if President Bush remains favorable to the death penalty....  The recent decisions taken in the U.S. to reverse death penalty cases were not based on a philosophy against capital punishment per se. But the movement in the U.S. is advancing, step by step.”


GERMANY:  “Mounting Doubts”


Stefan Kornelius opined in center-left Sueddeutsche Zeitung of Munich (1/14):  “With his mass parole, Illinois Governor Ryan attracted greater attention in Europe than in the United States where people are speculating that he is trying to distract attention from a looming probe of alleged fraud against him.  It is not that easy...but with his decision, Ryan is now spearheading a number of useful decisions of some regional parliaments in the United States that had their doubts about the weaknesses of the current system....  This trend has been going on for years and since the boom in executions in the year 2000, the number of executions has been falling.  An increasing number of Americans are rejecting the death penalty for ethical and legal, philosophical reasons.  But, nevertheless, nobody should harbor any false hopes:  the U.S. legal system will continue to know capital punishment and Europe will continue to despair over this incompatability of values.”




Peter Sturm commented in a front-page editorial in center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine (1/13):  “Governor Ryan’s decision...will heat up the debate in the United States over the death penalty, and this can only be beneficial for the political culture in the country....  But the hard core of death penalty advocates in the United States will not be convinced by Ryan’s decision anyway.  In addition to primitive reasons (an eye for an eye) people continue to argue that the prospects for the death penalty has a deterring effect on potential criminals, but the death penalty advocates have never delivered evidence of this argument.  Has, for instance, the number of murderers in Great Britain and France increased to immeasurable heights since these countries abolished the gallows and the guillotine?  Governor Ryan did reasonably not deal with such theses and counter-theses.  He based his decision on the most convincing factual argument against the death penalty:  human beings are fallible, and that is why even the most orderly trial is not safe from errors.”


“Hope From Illinois”


Alan Posener argued in right-of-center Die Welt of Berlin (1/13):  “The death penalty is un-American because it postulates the infallibility of the state institutions.  It is un-American, because in reality, it discriminates contrary to the Constitution against African Americans, Latinos and the poor of all races.  America’s democracy is based on the distrust toward the state, on the possibility to review all decisions.  The death penalty as a deterrent has failed and despite all allegation, it rarely creates the hoped-for peace for the relatives of the victims....  It is to be hoped that the pride and the feeling of justice of the American people will cause the things which comfort is unable to achieve:  the ostracism of the death penalty.  America’s friends in Europe would also heave a sigh of relief.  With his historic step, Governor Ryan deserves to sleep the sleep of the just.”


"A Milestone"


Center-right Koelnische/Bonner Rundschau and Trierischer Volksfreund both editorialized (1/13):  “What outgoing Republican Governor Ryan did shortly before leaving office is a milestone.  The transformation of the rulings against all 167 people on death row in his home state is another important step forward in the fight against a medieval and inhumane form of sanctions which does not even spare young and mentally disturbed people [from the death penalty].  For President George W. Bush...this courageous decision must be very painful not only because it comes from a party friend and is directed against Bush’s most important principles, but also because it focuses on the president’s unprecedented and presumptuous allegation that under his leadership not a single innocent person was executed in Texas.”


CROATIA:  “American Dilemma:   Lawyers’ Or Politicians’ Government?”


Zagreb-based mass-circulation Jutarnji list carried a piece by Zeljko Ivanjek stating (1/14):  "“However, will all this be enough to talk about an historical decision?  And will this cause President Bush to waver at all in his changing the relationship toward the death sentence?  Namely, before he took over the presidential office two years ago, Bush, as the Texas governor, had received at least 150 appeals for pardoning death row prisoners.   He rejected all of them, and pleaded for a criminal system in which the death penalty was one of its distinctions....  Will Bush now take another direction, and forget the death penalties in Texas, and, God forbid, even wider?  Nobody can say that for now....  Ryan is just a small, and already former, power-holder whose move cannot change the confused world, but can bring joy to many a child.   It’s up to voters to decide between politicians and God.   If that’s all that has remained from social morality.” 


IRELAND:  "The Demon Of Error"


The liberal Irish Times declared (1/15):  "His move (Mr George Ryan), though deeply unpopular, will provide an important boost to the US moratorium movement which has been winning adherents from both sides of the death penalty argument, particularly in the wake of multiple exonerations of convicted murderers in recent times on the basis of incontrovertible DNA evidence....  Mr Ryan's attempts to persuade the Illinois legislature to enact reforms to deal with such deficiencies were thwarted....  But the Illinois experience is not unique, and the arguments which swayed the governor are believed now to command a majority in an otherwise deeply conservative US Supreme Court. Many have been shocked by the evidence of arbitrariness and proven error and are increasingly willing to hear the case for a moratorium....  Mr Ryan's bold gesture should make Americans pause for thought."


NETHERLANDS:  "America And Capital Punishment"


Left-of-center Trouw had this editorial (1/15):  "Whether Illinois Governor Ryan's motivations were pure is not without doubt....  The governor is involved in a corruption scandal that destroyed his political career and opponents claim he is trying to polish his image....  Nevertheless his decision to pardon all 156 death sentences in his state sends out a clear signal to all the other 37 states that still have capital punishment.  The facts in Illinois are clear: at least thirteen CP convicts had to be released and this says something about the sloppiness with which CP cases are handled....  That is why Senator Russ Feingold (D), with his call for a nationwide investigation into CP and a moratorium on executions until the investigation is concluded, deserves national support....  The White House reaction which said President Bush continues to be a supporter of CP is both hurtful and disappointing."


NORWAY:  “A Wise Governor”


Independent VG opined (1/15):  "It is a tragedy that a country that has humanitarian principles as the basis for its constitution still to a broader extent uses the barbaric death penalty....  Norway is the US’s close friend and ally. Our authorities should not miss the chance to inform the Americans that we see Governor Ryan’s brave decision as a good example.”


“A Brave Governor”


Newspaper of record Aftenposten commented (1/14):  “Former Governor George Ryan in the American state of Illinois--he left office yesterday--has written his name with capital letters into American history....  Both statistics and modern investigation methods emphasize the Governor's point. Underprivileged groups are over-represented among the condemned, and many have received a penalty without any reason. The death penalty strikes randomly and it doesn’t have the intended preventive effect.”


“The Death Penalty”


Independent Dagbladet editorialized (1/14):  “It was facts that made now-retired Governor George Ryan in the State of Illinois grant amnesty to the condemned prisoners in the state. This is a positive signal that something might happen with the barbaric punishment method that the U.S. still uses....  It is a peculiar paradox that those in the U.S. who most strongly confess Christian values are among those who are the most persistent supporters of the death penalty....  But the practice of the punitive system puts the US in the company of the worst in the world: China, Saudi Arabia and Iran. This must be company that President George W. Bush cannot feel good about joining.”


“Positively About The Death Penalty”


Social democratic Dagsavisen declared (1/13):  “Only hours before he departed office the Republican Governor of Illinois George Ryan emptied the state’s death cells....  Governor Ryan made this choice because ‘it is not justice but revenge to require that a lost life should be paid with another life.'  Bush should listen to his colleague. Revenge must never become the most important motive for a system of justice.”


PORTUGAL: "Death Penalty"


In his column in respected center-left Diário de Notícias, former PSD (center-right) Finance Minister Francisco Sarsfield Cabral opined (1/22):  "In America, nothing indicates an elimination of the death penalty soon in the 38 states where it exists....  Seventy percent of Americans today are in favor of the death penalty....  Shamefully, this regression to barbarism accompanied the rise of the influence of the so-called Christian (fundamentalist) right in the Republican Party....  For those who appreciate the free society that is American, there are grounds for worry because of the death penalty and, in addition, the growing recourse to torturing terrorism suspects by U.S. authorities (or by others on their behalf).  These are victories for terrorism and defeats for civilization."


SPAIN:  "Illinois' Row"


Left-of-center El Pais editorialized (1/13):  "In a last-minute decision before leaving his post of governor of Illinois today, George Ryan commuted to life imprisonment the death penalties against the 157 inmates sentenced to lose their lives in his state and emptied those jails of their death rows....  The death penalty is highly immoral, and in the event of a miscarriage of justice it cannot be reversed. Its disappearance in Europe is a matter of basic values, and it separates the two sides of the Atlantic, with practical repercussions on judicial cooperation. In the USA, following its reintroduction in 1976, it has become the extreme manifestation of a toughened-up prisons policy which has had no significant effects on crime levels. On the contrary, after falling for some years, crime has risen again....  But what has happened in Illinois raises the hope that a momentum will be created that will lead to the suspension of executions throughout the country and the possible abolition of this ridiculous punishment."




AUSTRALIA:  "Too Much Risk In Giving Killers A Second Chance"


Deroy Murdock wrote in the conservative national Australian (1/15):  "Death penalty opponents are jumping for joy after Republican Governor George Ryan in the US state of Illinois offered a mass clemency to 167 prisoners on death row just before his term ended on Monday. These celebrations are justified in a few cases, such as those of four prisoners whose confessions were apparently extracted under police torture. Everyone should cheer when people such as these walk free.  But those who applaud Ryan simply because they hate the death penalty should cross their fingers. They had better hope that former death row prisoners now sentenced to life without parole actually remain in jail. These bleeding hearts will look rather foolish if any of Ryan's rescuees decides to release himself from jail....  Statistics on this phenomenon are rare. States categorise escapes differently and appear not to report them nationally. Clearly though, for some imprisoned murderers, "life without parole" is more suggestion than reality.  Would tighter facilities help keep bloodthirsty criminals behind bars for life? Perhaps.....  Execution foes correctly argue that the legal system must shield innocents from improper capital punishment. DNA technology addresses this legitimate concern, as would better legal representation for indigent defendants.  Nevertheless, properly convicted capital murderers should be dispatched. Life sentences too often are mere challenges for prisoners to escape, from which they aspire to terrify law-abiding citizens and sometimes kill again.  The death penalty's detractors cannot refute this fact: Even the toughest criminals become remarkably docile once separated from society by six feet of soil." 


"A Clean Sweep On Death Row"


Melbourne's left-wing Age admiringly wrote (1/14):  "Every time the death penalty is imposed in the US, that nation's claim to being a champion of human rights and a repository of civilised values is called into question....  We applaud Mr Ryan's action and hope it stimulates further public questioning in the US of the state's right to put its citizens to death."


"Governor's Gesture Puts Injustices In The Chair"


The conservative national Australian commented (1/14):  "The US death penalty has been dealt a telling blow....  Ryan...has put US capital punishment on the road to oblivion by commuting the sentences of all 167 of the state's death row inmates....  Death penalty supporters argue the exonerations prove the system works. This is sheer sophistry. For me, the exonerations shorten the odds that innocents have been put to death, particularly before the advent of DNA testing, which has been a key factor in righting wrongs committed by a broken and biased system....  Dishonest prosecutions and incompetent defences entrench another lethal imbalance. We've all read about the defence counsel who slept through a capital case (he lost), but less about widespread inequities such as the fact 95 per cent of death row inmates cannot afford a lawyer....  There is no evidence to back the belief that executions deter others from murder....  Ryan's decision has drawn "worldwide praise and stern local condemnation", a response that highlights the US' global isolation on capital punishment."


CHINA:  “Many U.S. Criminals Have Been Mistakenly Sentenced To The Death Penalty”


Liang Yan reported in official Communist Party international news publication Global Times (Huanqiu Shibao) (1/15):  "Experts have pointed out that the key question is not whether or not death penalty should remain in the U.S. judicial system.  The core of the issue is whether or not the trials of capital criminals are just.”




CANADA:  "A Miscarriage of Democracy"


John O'Sullivan wrote in the centrist, business-oriented National Post (1/18):  "When Illinois Governor George Ryan reached the line "I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death" at Northwestern University last Saturday...his audience leapt to their feet and applauded.  Now, think about that. Why would people cheer the news that 167 convicted murderers would no longer be at risk of execution? If those present were convinced that innocent men were on Death Row, they might reasonably be relieved that a grave miscarriage of justice had been averted. But they would also know that men guilty of terrible crimes, whose victims were still mourned by their families, would not receive the punishment that the law decreed. And they would also be miscarriages of justice....  In all these circumstances, the cheering and applause for Ryan were--the word is unavoidable--"obscene."....  Because the death penalty has become the latest skirmish in the ongoing culture war between the American people (70% of whom endorse capital punishment) and its academic, media and political elites. These latter have determined that capital punishment is the mark of a brutal and uncivilized society and that it is therefore legitimate to resort to override democracy in order to eradicate it....  There were no known wrongful executions in the period covered."


"The Illinois Governor Says 'No' To Execution"


Leading Globe & Mail editorialized (1/14):  "In commuting the death sentences...Illinois Governor George Ryan posed a moral challenge to the United States. A long-time supporter of capital punishment, he has scrutinized its practice and come away sickened. And he has asked revealing questions that should trouble all Americans....      Even when guilt is clear, the death penalty is often applied unfairly. Why, Mr. Ryan asks, is the system so racist and arbitrary? More than two-thirds of the 167 death-row inmates are blacks....  And why, he asks, has nearly the entire democratic world, with the exceptions of India and Japan, abolished the death penalty? Why is the United States, as he put it, a "partner in death" with Third World countries such as China, Iran and the Democratic Republic of Congo?  It would be nice to paint Governor Ryan as the bellwether of a change of heart in the United States. Some would view that as naive.  Death-penalty advocates point to corruption allegations against his administration, and say he was merely trying to save his legacy. And President George W. Bush weighed in, saying the death penalty is a necessary deterrent....  Governor Ryan has ordered the most sweeping act of clemency in U.S. history. He deserves more than just kudos for standing against popular opinion (even his wife disagreed with him). He deserves an answer to his questions."


"Emptying Death Row"


The liberal Toronto Star declared (1/14):  "This past week, just before quitting office, Governor Ryan emptied death row, pardoning four inmates outright and sparing 167 more. Most will remain in prison until they die. What happened to warrant this unprecedented act of clemency?  The death penalty in the United States is imposed in an "arbitrary, capricious, immoral" way, Ryan contends, and by a system that is not only "inaccurate, unjust" but also brutal, incompetent, tilted to the affluent and "at times very racist." It "has failed the people," he says.  His gesture has been condemned as "outrageous and unconscionable" by supporters of the death penalty. They point out that those granted clemency have killed more than 250 people, some barbarously. They ask whether Ryan's compassion extends to the victims. They point out that 7 in 10 Americans endorse executions....  The U.S. is in a class with China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iran, in carrying out executions frequently.  Will Ryan's historic gesture cause America's lawmakers to consider withdrawing from the business of state-sanctioned killing?"


MEXICO:   "Commending Illinois Governor" 


Mexico City-based Spanish-language centrist El Universal noted (1/13):  "President Fox...commended Illinois Governor George Ryan for having commuted the death sentence of 156 prisoners, including three Mexicans....  The Illinois commuting of death sentences constitutes an encouragement for the Mexican Government's work to prevent the execution of Mexicans in US penitentiaries....  The three Mexicans were accused of murder, and that two of them, Juan Caballero and Gabriel Solache are to remain in prison for life and the third, Mario Flores was sentenced to 40 years in prison."



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