I suppose we’re seeing nothing more than respectful disagreement among thoughtful jurists, but there does seem to be an exquisite process of calibration shaping the appellate court’s response to George Ryan’s appeal.  To review, the former governor was convicted 18 months ago of corruption in office and sentenced to six and a half years in prison. Codefendant Lawrence Warner was sentenced to three and a half years. Their trial was a messy one — it dragged on for six months, and while the jury was deliberating the Tribune turned up evidence that some of the jurors had lied on their questionnaires. At that point Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer suspended the trial, grilled the individual jurors, and replaced two who’d concealed arrest records. Ryan appealed, and last August a panel of three appellate judges voted two to one to uphold the verdict. The dissenting judge, Michael Kanne, cited the “dysfunctional jury deliberations” and said he had no doubt “that if this case had been a six-day trial, rather than a six-month trial, a mistrial would have been swiftly declared.”

Ryan and Warner asked the full Seventh Circuit to hear their appeal, and on Thursday that court announced (registration required) that by a six-three vote it had decided it would not. The announcement was a paragraph long. Once again there was a ringing dissent — Kanne was joined by judges Richard Posner and Ann Claire Williams — and it ran on for more than 13 pages. “We agree with the panel majority that the evidence of the defendants’ guilt was overwhelming,” they wrote. “But guilt no matter how clearly established cannot cancel a criminal defendant’s right to a trial that meets minimum standards of procedural justice.”

So where are we now? Ryan and Warner were found guilty in a trial too tainted to be suffered in silence, and  twice an appellate court minority has censured it. Now Ryan and Warner will appeal to the Supreme Court, and as the Tribune observed, the fact that Posner — “one of the nation’s most influential judges” — signed the latest dissent might help the Supreme Court decide to take the case.

The dissents have been so vigorous they’ve made it possible to imagine Ryan and Warner actually getting off in the end, which has made it easier for Pallmeyer to let them remain free while they appeal. But they haven’t gotten off. A tarnished trial has been harshly criticized. But it hasn’t been overturned. In a perfect legal world, guilt is always punished and principle is always defended. The handiest place to stand on principle is in dissent. 

UPDATE: Despite the latest dissent, on Friday Pallmeyer ordered Ryan and Warner to report to prison November 7. Their lawyers asked the appellate court to let them remain free pending whatever action the Supreme Court takes. A decision was expected early in the week.