- Written by Bill Boyarsky
20 Sep 2011
CAPITOL PUNISHMENT POLITICS - Gov. Rick Perry is a happy executioner, having presided over 230 executions in Texas. That’s more, reported The Texas Tribune, “than any other modern governor of any state.”
Perry’s energetic support of capital punishment and his blind refusal to consider any mitigating evidence in the cases of death row inmates, no matter how scientific, shows what a danger he would be if placed in charge of the federal government’s huge law enforcement system.
President Perry would have control of the Justice Department, which can reach into almost every aspect of our lives. He would appoint justices to the Supreme Court and other federal courts. In addition, the federal government has great influence over state courts and law enforcement, both indirectly and through grants and frequent state-federal cooperation in criminal investigations. Federal power reaches down to the cop on the beat.
Perry’s presidential campaign is occurring amid changing attitudes toward the death penalty. These have not influenced him or, apparently, his state.
“Almost all recent executions have been in one region of the country—the south—and most of those in one state—Texas,” the Death Penalty Information Center reported in its 2009 report “Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis.”
The center polled 500 randomly selected police chiefs around the country and found few who believed the death penalty was a deterrent to crime. Instead, they cited a shortage of resources and the effects of drugs and alcohol as factors that made law enforcement harder. Insufficient use of the death penalty was at the bottom of the list.
Another telling argument against the death penalty is scientific: the number of inmates—alleged murderers and others—who have been exonerated through DNA testing. A 2010 report by the Innocence Project, famed for freeing the falsely accused, said 250 convicts have been exonerated through DNA testing and they “are the tip of the iceberg.”
Perry has been unmoved by the importance of scientific evidence. Rather, he seems to reflect the approach U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia took in a 2005 opinion, that there was not “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit.”
Perry has commuted the death sentences of 31 inmates, but 28 of them were juveniles at the time of their crimes, and the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled states could not execute those who were under 18 when the crime occurred. The Texas Tribune said Perry lifted the sentences “grudgingly” and quoted him as saying, “While these individuals were convicted by juries of brutal murders and sentenced to die for their heinous crimes, I have no choice but to commute these sentences to life in prison.” The other two cases involved mentally retarded convicts, also excluded from execution by the Supreme Court.
The case that sheds the most light on Perry’s attitude is that of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 after being convicted of setting a house fire that killed his three small daughters. As reported in extensive detail by the Chicago Tribune in 2004 and The New Yorker in 2009, arson experts from around the country, plus the newspaper’s reporting, found that the investigation was badly flawed.
Well-respected arson experts said the fire might well have been an accident. The conclusion was backed up by a report from four fire scientists for the Innocence Project. Perry, The Texas Tribune said, dismissed such findings and called Willingham a guilty “monster.”
A state agency, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, began an investigation of the scientific criticisms. Shortly before a scientist—one of the critics—was about to testify, Perry told three commission members they would not be reappointed and he replaced the chairman with one of his allies, a hard-line pro-death-penalty district attorney. The commission moved away from an investigation of the Willingham case. This was in 2009, a year before Perry’s re-election campaign when the Willingham case was becoming the subject of greater scrutiny in criminal justice circles in Texas and around the country.
This is just one case, but a revealing one, involving all aspects of the Texas criminal justice system over which Rick Perry presided. Whether Texas had executed an innocent man seemed to mean little to him. No part of government is more important to individual rights than the criminal justice system and its components, courts and cops. Giving Perry control of them would be a real threat to democracy.
(Bill Boyarsky is a journalist and blogs at truthdig.com where this column first appeared. Photo credit: AP / Erich Schlegel ) –cw
Tags: death penalty, capital punishment, Rick Perry
Vol 9 Issue 75
Pub: Sept 16, 2011