Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Commentary on the Ryan Decision: Was it Efficient?

The contrast between the majority and dissent (see opinion here) is a telling picture of our judicial system. Former Illinois Governor Ryan fought hard against a death penalty that operated in a system with mistakes.  He wanted a judicial system that provided due process rights. He went so far as to grant a moratorium on the death penalty in his state to study the errors in these trials.  And in his own trial, a trial with a multitude of unfortunate incidents, he also argued for a trial free from bias and one that would provide him with due process of law.

So the question becomes, where is the line between a near perfect trial and a trial that violates the defendant's due process rights? Obviously, the majority and dissent do not agree on this point here.

The majority notes that "[t]he fact that the trial may not have been picture-perfect is, in itself, nothing unusual...'there can be no such thing as an error-free, perfect trial, and ... the Constitution does not guarantee such a trial.'" Finding no error in some instances, and others as harmless errors, the court affirms.  In contrast, Judge Kanne, in dissent, provides 18 bullets in which he "highlights in a summary fashion" some of the problems with this case. His conclusion states that "this case was inexorably driven to a defective conclusion by the natural human desire to bring an end to the massive expenditure of time and resources occasioned by this trial - to the detriment of the defendants."

Efficiency in a judicial system is important.  But values - such as the value of it being a fair system - are likewise crucial.  It is clear that the majority is more forgiving of trial errors, with the dissent more focused on scrutinizing the errors and considering them cumulatively. It is almost as if Ryan lost more than just his appeal here.  He lost a position on when efficiency needs to be overruled. The irony of the situation is that he was the champion of the cause that failed in his very own case.


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