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August 24, 2011 12:35 PM On executions, Perry has no rival

By Steve Benen

For those voters who consider support for the death penalty their top issue, the presidential race isn’t even a contest. When it comes to U.S. officials killing U.S. citizens, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is in a league of his own.

In his nearly 11 years as chief executive, Perry, now running for the GOP presidential nomination, has overseen more executions than any governor in modern history: 234 and counting. That’s more than the combined total in next two states — Oklahoma and Virginia — since the death penalty was restored 35 years ago.

The number is partly explained by sheer longevity at the helm of a huge state that has mastered the complicated legal maze of carrying out capital punishment.

But Perry has hardly shrunk from the task…. He vetoed a bill that would have spared the mentally retarded and sharply criticized a Supreme Court ruling that juveniles were not eligible for death.

It’s hard to say how this will perceived by voters or whether it will matter at all in an electoral context, but when it comes to Perry’s record, one execution in particular is likely to stand out.

In 2004, there’s reason to believe Texas may have executed an innocent man when it put Cameron Todd Willingham to death. When Willingham was convicted, prosecutors relied heavily on an “expert” who testified on the origins of a fire that killed Willingham’s daughters, and said Willingham was responsible. The problem, we now know, is that the “expert” apparently didn’t know what he was talking about.

But that’s only part of the story. As those familiar with the Willingham story likely remember, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, created to consider the competence of those who offer forensic testimony, hired an actual arson expert, to consider the evidence and report on his findings. He was scheduled to discuss what he found in early October 2009.

Rick Perry, who was governor when the state killed Willingham, was apparently afraid of what the truth might show. In the 11th hour, the governor started firing members of the Forensic Science Commission, ensuring that the panel couldn’t hold a meeting to discuss the case.

Even for Perry, this was brazen. He was so panicky that the facts would show Texas killed an innocent man, he went to ridiculous lengths to prevent the truth from coming out. Nearly two years later, the facts still haven’t been presented.

As this relates to the governor’s presidential campaign, the next question is whether voters will care. During last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) thought Perry might be vulnerable on this point. Her campaign posed the issue to a Texas focus group, which included one Republican who said, “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”

Whether voters elsewhere consider the issue the same way remains to be seen.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

Comments

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  • Marc McKenzie on August 24, 2011 12:38 PM:

    Good Lord. This man is, well, truly frightening.

    "Whether voters elsewhere consider the issue the same way remains to be seen."

    Here's another question to ask: will the American news media give Perry a pass on this, or really look into it?

  • Texas Aggie on August 24, 2011 12:39 PM:

    You should mention that even before Willingham was executed, there was a real arson expert who reported that the evidence was flawed, but Goodhair ignored the testimony and ordered the guy executed anyway.

  • efgoldman on August 24, 2011 12:42 PM:

    In the primaries, Willingham will be a non-factor to a very slight plus.
    If Perry gets the nomination, threre will lots of easier things (especially his own book) with which to hang him. Metaphor chosen n purpose.
    I never heave understood why Texans are so damned bloodthirsty.

    ...a huge state that has mastered the complicated legal maze of carrying out capital punishment.

    The only thing they've mastered is a way to ignore laws and human decency.

    Three tries to get a readable capthca ipsista 5OI and then it didn't work.

  • T-Rex on August 24, 2011 12:42 PM:

    Bush hath slain his thousands and Perry his tens of thousands! Hallelujah, Hallelujah, he is the annointed of God!

  • c u n d gulag on August 24, 2011 12:44 PM:

    Executions, even of the innocent, will only help him in the primaries!

    To die-hard (no pun intended) Conservatives, they show that he's a man of principle.

  • berttheclock on August 24, 2011 12:47 PM:

    I thought Perry played Major Tetley rather well in the remake of "The Ox-Bow Incident". Sat tall in the saddle.

  • DAY on August 24, 2011 12:51 PM:

    Curious, is it not, the disconnect between abortion and capitol punishment?

  • stormskies on August 24, 2011 12:52 PM:

    He can rely on his friends in the corporate media, like the corporate used condom called David Gregory, to fix it for him ...

  • Pope Pius on August 24, 2011 12:56 PM:

    Jesus must be so proud.

  • tam on August 24, 2011 12:59 PM:

    It's a long read, but The New Yorker presented the evidence for Willingham's innocence at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann.

  • tam on August 24, 2011 1:03 PM:

    Sorry, that link now doesn't work. Google "Willingham New Yorker"

  • Gandalf on August 24, 2011 1:04 PM:

    Curious Day how you can come up with some nonsense to equiviate abortion and having a man who may very well be innocent executed by the state. Oh yea we all get the idea of innocents being killed but each individual making a decision to abort a fetus is a whole different universe than state sanctioned execution of a man who may be innocent.

  • jjm on August 24, 2011 1:05 PM:

    I continue to be saddened that any Americans will buy into the cartoon character that Rick Perry is:

    --fake tough buy 'action figure' (with just that vague hint of femininity that draws homoerotic feeling to him under the surface, while repelling it consciously)

    --displaying the self-appointed "American values" characteristics of kicking the weak when they're down, loving waste and oil-related industries

    -- never bothering to imagine cleaning up after ourselves.

    One of my children couldn't take it any more and emigrated to a remote country that he characterized as without Republicans.

    I have never personally met any single human being as stupid as Rick Perry appears to be and I was an educator who met many many children. I always believed that virtually anyone could be taught.

    But this guy takes the cake: and if ANY people are buying what he is selling, perhaps I should follow my son.

  • June on August 24, 2011 1:09 PM:

    It's 2000 all over again. If this information is only contained to "lib'rul media" blogs - no low-information voter will ever see it. Even if they did see it, would it matter? I'm going to guess, no. I don't know what kind of magic dust Republicans sprinkle over the public, but nothing they do seems to matter. The public sees Perry "opening his arms to God" in some stadium, and the image of him as holier-than-thou is seared into its consciousness - not the actual reality of a blood-thirsty, power-hungry, horrible human being.

  • berttheclock on August 24, 2011 1:10 PM:

    Oh, really, Gandalf? Now, where were all of those Pro-Lifers who speak, protest and write op-eds endlessly for the rights of the precious unborns to declare their outrage over the execution of someone who may have been innocent? Did they flood the Governor's Mansion in Austin with their outrage? Did Perry lose any of their support?

  • RepublicanPointOfView on August 24, 2011 1:15 PM:

    No story here. Move along...

    As Justice Antonin Scalia argued, "This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent." Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia in the court minority.

  • Goldilocks on August 24, 2011 1:16 PM:

    The last president we had, a certain George Walker Bush, also had a penchant for killing - in his case "only" 167. Even so he went on the kill 600,000 Iraqi citizens, displaced a further 1.5 million from their homeland, and killed over 4000 US service men and women.

    By proportional arithmetic we could expect Perrydox to dispatch an astronomical 900,000 human beings.

    Of course, Jesus would be proud of him.

  • JW on August 24, 2011 1:30 PM:

    Americans don't care about killing people. We might not take particular pride in doing so, but it doesn't bother us much, either.

    When is the last time (or the first time, for that matter) when a politician expressed revulsion at the deaths of Iraqi's killed during the Big Lie War? All were as good as murdered in cold blood as a consequence of a vast and sinister conspiracy, engineered at the highest echelons of the United States government.

    We don't even care enough to call those responsible to account for the deaths of our slain.

    It's as if it never happened.

  • Celui on August 24, 2011 1:32 PM:

    This is a MAJOR story, to blatantly contradict 'no story here. Move along' above. Major in that this candidate would ignore facts to appease his role as 'decider'. There has to be more exposure to this story. Take Benen's article above, copy it to your US Senator (regardless of party), expose this wanton state-sanctioned murder for what it is. Go one step further: abolish the death penalty! It's only retaliation, not a prevention for future crimes. And, yes--I do know what I'm talking about. My relative was raped and murdered by a man now doing life in prison, no chance of parole. It is less expensive, and more appropriate. Share this article now!

  • Josef K on August 24, 2011 1:46 PM:

    It would make one helluva question for next year's televised debates (provided he gets through the primaries):

    "Governor Perry, given you executed Cameron Todd Willingham despite clear evidence he was innocent, do you agree with Supreme Court Justice Scalia that the state can still execute people who have been convicted and sentenced but where evidence shows them to actually be innocent?"

    Won't happen, of course, and I'm not sure it would matter even if it did. The death penalty, carried out on an industrial basis, seems a signature aspect of Texas.

  • Speed on August 24, 2011 2:07 PM:

    Texas has a long history of this. Many years after they executed Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV, we found out that Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade was notorious for fabricating or destroying evidence to get people convicted.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on August 24, 2011 2:18 PM:

    Now, where were all of those Pro-Lifers who speak, protest and write op-eds endlessly for the rights of the precious unborns to declare their outrage over the execution of someone who may have been innocent?

    I'm one, but obviously i'm one voice drowned out by millions. It's a sad political landscape for those of us who try to be pro-life in everything.

    “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”

    Only if you think you might pay for it at the ballot box or in the afterlife, and there's no evidence Perry takes either threat seriously. There's very little courageous about letting the state murder the innocent to make you look macho, just as GWB was no less a coward just because his thugs were torturing people.

  • SYSPROG on August 24, 2011 2:22 PM:

    Yes indeedy, it takes 'balls' to carry a cross in one hand and the flag in the other and execute innocent people that just don't contribute to your campaign(s).

  • ckelly on August 24, 2011 2:31 PM:

    a huge state that has mastered the complicated legal maze of carrying out capital punishment.

    Hey, we're so good at it the we even put to death the innocent! We're #1.

    Oh come on, Craptcha has accents and brackets and numbers now to go along with made up jumbles of words obscured with squiggly scratch-out lines. Come on!

  • exlibra on August 24, 2011 2:47 PM:

    Perry's blood-lust is revolting to any sentient being but, like several people have said, it might actually garner him some extra kudos from his base in the primaries. I remember that, when Kaine was running for the Governor of Virginia (another bloodthirsty state), all the whited sepulchers posing as pro-life on the Repub side were "worried" that, being a Catholic and a true Christian he might be reluctant to carry out the judicial killings. The man had to, practically, swear that, if elected, he'd not be overly merciful (God forfend!).

    "Soutsi you". You're neither saucy nor cutesy, you Texan vampire.

    Craptcha reeks.

  • ckelly on August 24, 2011 2:49 PM:

    Good Lord. This man is, well, truly frightening.

    But I'm more frightened by the Texas focus group because I'm surrounded by these nutcases every single day.

    Craptcha: olidersi REILLY (Bill-o, is that you?)

  • DAY on August 24, 2011 3:04 PM:

    regarding "captcha":
    Other sites have similar devices to foil fraudsters, but they are much easier to navigate.
    I guess management just doesn't care about our incipient ulcers. . .

  • DavidNOE on August 24, 2011 3:19 PM:

    What a lot of reasonable people don't seem to realize is that the typical conservative doesn't really care whether the person executed for a crime is in fact guilty of it; the important thing is that if there's a horrendous crime, somebody is executed for it, pour encourager les autres, as the French put it.

    And the first captcha I got included a "word" in Hebrew characters - if it was Yiddish it would probably be ATM (aleph-tav-mem sofeet read right to left; the reverse read left to right, but then the mem sofeet wouldn't be at the end of the word, which means the character wouldn't be correct). Now, I have a Hebrew font installed on my computer and could have typed it, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have worked. Bleh.

  • werewolf on August 24, 2011 4:37 PM:

    @DavidNOE:
    That word is indeed a Hebrew word-atem, you (plural-in the South, y'all).

  • The Tea Party believes in small government, but they are ok with the government executing innocent p on August 25, 2011 8:54 AM:

    The Tea Party believes in small government, but they are ok with the government executing innocent people?

  • Heather Mefford on September 15, 2011 11:29 PM:

    After hearing about the Willingham case and Perry's part in it I felt such a sense of grief and outrage. I am horrified that this man is now going to attempt to be our nation's nest president. I no longer align myself with any political party but if I were going to be honest I would have to admit that I probably lean more to the conservative side at times. That being said, how could anyone want this man in any government position?!? He has demonstrated that he is a man lacking courage, honor, decency or insight. With the information,he had available at the time, it is unacceptable that he not order a stay of execution pending further review of evidence. How is this man able to show his face in public after allowing an innocent man to die?! I have to take a stand, no matter how unimportant I am, to tell as many people as I can about Perry. This man CANNOT be trusted to uphold or defend the constitution of American much less make rational judgements. He should offer a public apology to the parent's of Willingham and Texas immediately. I honestly feel that he was an accomplice to murder and should be charged, as, such in a criminal court. After all it is very clear that he helped murder someone's child, no?

  • Andrew on October 06, 2011 3:03 PM:

    This is absolutely outrageous - from my European point of view. I agree, he cannot be trusted to defend the rights and good of anybody, let alone so many people. Upholding forensic evidence - that's a crime, at least where I come from

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