In his nearly 11 years as the state’s chief executive, Perry, now running for the Republican presidential nomination, has overseen more executions than any governor in modern history: 234 and counting. That’s more than the combined total in the next two states — Oklahoma and Virginia — since the death penalty was restored 35 years ago.
As the 2012 presidential race unfolds, Perry’s record will inevitably become part of the debate in a country where the number of death sentences handed down continues to fall and some states are renouncing executions. Polls show that capital punishment remains both popular and controversial. And although all of Perry’s main competitors, including President Obama, support the death penalty, Perry’s role stands out.
He vetoed a bill that would have spared the mentally retarded, and sharply criticized a Supreme Court ruling that juveniles were not eligible for the death penalty. He has found during his tenure only one inmate on Texas’s crowded death row he thought should receive the lesser sentence of life in prison.
And Perry’s role in the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham — who supporters said should have been at least temporarily spared when experts warned that faulty forensic science led to his conviction — is still the subject of investigation in Texas.
Perry has been unapologetic.
“If you don’t support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, don’t come to Texas,” he wrote in his book lauding states’ rights, “Fed Up!”
This week, the West Memphis Three were released in a hideous deal that allowed them to plead guilty but still proclaim their innocence. They're free, but with clouds over their heads and uncertain legal status. It's a deal that allowed an inept and corrupt and bigoted prosecutor's office to save face, because after all, isn't protecting officialdom the primary function of the justice system? In states like Arkansas and Texas -- states that Bible-thump the most loudly and invoke Jesus every chance they get -- it would seem that this is the case.
In the wake of the release of the West Memphis Three, consider the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man that Rick Perry knew was innocent and for whom he refused to grant clemency anyway. If you aren't familiar with the Willingham case, go read David Grann's haunting 2009 New Yorker article. But Willingham isn't the only questionable Rick Perry execution, there are more.
We all remember how, as a presidential candidate in 1992, Bill Clinton allowed Rickey Ray Rector, a man so brain damaged and so unable to understand what was going to happen to him, that he saved the pecan pie from has last meal to eat later. It was a horrific, cynical decision made by Bill Clinton specifically to give him "tough-on-crime" cred with the unable-to-string-two-thoughts-together-at-once, "Ooh, shiny!" independent voters so beloved by politicians and pundits. But where Rick Perry is concerned, it's not about trying to gain tough-guy cred, because Perry's entire persona is all about the unique Texas cowboy drag that all politicians out of Texas seem to need to wear, even the late and beloved Ann Richards, who also signed off on her share of executions. But Perry took the execution of people who don't know what's happening to them a step further than Bill Clinton's cynical decision. Perry went so far as to actively vetoed a bill in 2001 that would ban the execution of the mentally disabled.
But in the Willingham case, Perry's office seemed to have gone out of its way to make sure this execution was carried out regardless of evidence of Willingham's innocence:
A 2004 Tribune investigation raised the possibility that Perry, who was governor when Cameron Todd Willingham was executed, approved the lethal injection of an innocent man. That article found fundamental flaws in the arson theories used to convict Willingham.
In a clemency plea four days before the execution, Willingham's attorney raised questions about the forensics. Perry has said he examined the information. But he did not delay the execution.
Perry has downplayed a series of reviews by fire scientists who sharply criticized the original investigation, describing the scientists as "latter-day supposed experts."
The Forensic Science Commission was created by the Texas Legislature in 2005 to improve forensics in Texas as well as investigate specific complaints. The Willingham case was among the panel's first complaints.
According to Bassett, the governor's attorneys questioned the cost of the inquiry and asked why a Texas fire scientist could not be hired instead of the Maryland expert whom the panel settled on.
In December, Bassett's nine-member panel voted to hire Craig Beyler of Hughes Associates to analyze the fire investigation and write a report. That report, made public in late August, contained withering criticism of the fire investigation, and joined a drumbeat of findings critical of the investigation.
Beyler was scheduled to discuss the case at an Oct. 2 commission meeting in Dallas, but three days before, Perry replaced Bassett and two other commission members.
It's easy to say that there are always going to be mistakes in the justice system, and the execution of the innocence is just a risk we have to take in order to show that we're tough on criminals. But the presence of the death penalty, and the blithe heedlessness with which it is carried out in states like Texas and Arkansas, has done nothing to deter crime. Perhaps the citizens of these states are just fine with this, at least until THEY are unfortunate enough get caught up in the web of their states' corrupt justice systems, as Cameron Willingham and the West Memphis three found themselves. But the decision to sign off on a writ of execution, or to refuse to even consider a clemency request, should not be easy ones. A body count of over 200 people indicates that Rick Perry not only finds it easy, but revels in it. One can only wonder what a man like this will do with the world's largest military at his beck and call.