CHICAGO -- A survey of the capacity crowd at Northwestern University Law School's Lincoln Hall on Saturday probably wouldn't have yielded more than a handful of registered Republicans. The stately oak room was filled with public defenders, death-penalty abolitionists and idealistic law students, the kind of people who give money to Amnesty International, vote for Ralph Nader and have "No War on Iraq" bumper stickers on their Volvos. There probably weren't more than a dozen people who had voted for George Ryan in 1998, when he successfully ran for governor of Illinois.

And yet when Ryan, a career Republican and staunch party loyalist, entered the room to announce a blanket commutation for every one of the state's 167 death-row inmates, he received a two-minute standing ovation that showed the crowd's members considered him to be one of their own. For his part, Ryan didn't sound much like a Republican, or even a moderate for that matter. If anything, he sounded like William Kunstler.

Ryan called the death-penalty system "broken," "racist," "arbitrary and capricious, and therefore immoral," and daringly veered into the dangerous territory of class warfare, noting, "Seldom are people with money or prestige convicted of capital offenses; even more seldom are they executed." He called the fight against the current system "one of the great civil-rights struggles of our time," and quoted from a pantheon of progressive heroes, including Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Ghandi and the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who, in a 1994 capital-punishment dissent, wrote that he would "no longer tinker with the machinery of death."

Some of the assembled press members cracked wise about the corruption-addled Ryan building up good karma before he is indicted for alleged scandals that took place in his office while he was secretary of state. Others cynically called the commutations a move designed to divert attention from the trial of his former top aide, Scott Fawell. But listening to Ryan, it was difficult not to believe that this was a man who had gone through one of the most remarkable conversions in recent political history.

For nearly the entirety of Ryan's 35-year political career he was a staunch supporter of the death penalty. As a state legislator, he voted in 1978 for the reinstatement of capital punishment in Illinois, and he was elected governor in 1998 with that position unchanged. That year, Illinois nearly executed Anthony Porter for a crime that another felon would later confess to. The fact that Porter was just 48 hours from being executed by the state deeply shook Ryan, who began to pay more attention to those at Northwestern's Center for Wrongful Convictions who maintained that there were other innocent men on death row.

They were right. In the next several months, three more men were taken off death row after DNA or other exculpatory evidence proved that they had not committed the horrific crimes for which they were condemned to die. When Ryan saw the numbers -- 13 men exonerated and 12 put to death since the state reinstated capital punishment -- he called for a moratorium and convened a special commission to study reforms. Two-thirds of Illinois residents supported the moratorium; polls in other states showed support for similar proposals. Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening soon imposed a moratorium of his own.

But in the last two years, according to a Gallup Poll, support for the death penalty has increased. Maryland's incoming Republican governor, Robert Ehrlich, has announced that he will end his state's moratorium, and a recent poll showed Illinois citizens opposing the blanket clemencies. And while Ryan plucked at progressive heartstrings in Chicago, delivering one of the most damning critiques of the criminal-justice system ever offered by an elected official, the state's most prominent Democrats responded with pandering condemnations of his decision. "With one sweeping scratch of the pen," fumed Gov.-elect Rod Blagojevich, "he committed a terrible mistake." Blagojevich, who was in Springfield preparing for his inauguration -- which took place on Monday -- said he would investigate possible constitutional avenues to overturn the commutations.

It is symptomatic of a larger impulse among the Democrats here that they have refused to take a progressive position on arguably the most pressing moral issue facing the state of Illinois. On the national scene, it has become conventional wisdom that a position against the death penalty amounts to political suicide, and even the least competent political consultant could use the examples of Michael Dukakis and Mario Cuomo to deter Democratic candidates from following their consciences on the matter. In fact, aside from Ryan, one of the only other recent governors to oppose the death penalty was Jesse Ventura (I-Minn.), who had a conversion similar to Ryan's after considering the realities of Minnesota's criminal-justice system. Ventura, perhaps not coincidentally, also did not seek a second term.

Whether you are in favor of the death penalty or not, it is another thing to be in favor of executing innocent people, and it is sheer moral ignorance to suppose that support for the former does not -- at least under our current system -- imply support for the latter. No fewer than 100 people have been released from death row in the last 30 years, a significant portion of them exonerated by DNA techniques that have only become available in the last 12 years. It doesn't take much number crunching to deduce that there have been innocent people whose lives would have been spared if they'd only had the good fortune of being wrongfully convicted just a few years later.

This isn't a controversial view. Just this summer, U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff argued that the federal death penalty is unconstitutional because it "is tantamount to foreseeable, state-sponsored murder of innocent human beings." A 2000 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, meanwhile, found that 80 percent of U.S. citizens believe that an innocent person has at some point been executed. While Illinois' recent record of 13 exonerations to 12 executions is abysmal, says Barry Scheck, co-founder of Benjamin Cardozo Law School's Innocence Project, there is no reason to suppose it's any worse than other states' records would be if they were subjected to the same scrutiny that the Illinois system has received in recent years.

Abolitionists and reformers are hoping that Ryan's courage will inspire a serious and thorough debate on capital punishment, one that might lead to actual reforms or eventual abolition. "I hope it wakes a sleeping giant and makes people understand the system is corrupt to its core," says Larry Marshall, a Northwestern Law School professor who helped found the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

But in order for there to be what Ryan called a "rational discussion" about the death penalty -- and the failures of the criminal-justice system in general -- some brave leadership will have to be provided by politicians who dare to challenge the current facile assumptions about what it means to be tough on crime. The wholesale conversion of the formerly conservative George Ryan suggests that if American voters were presented the full, gory details of their country's criminal legal system, they, too, might conclude that serious reforms are necessary. The question now is, can death penalty opponents find anyone -- aside from a maverick at the end of his political career -- with the moral courage to speak the truth?