Rick Perry Execution Record: Is it Really Something to Be Proud Of?

ANALYSIS

 @ashleyportero on September 13 2011 6:02 PM
Rick Perry in Tea Pary Debate
A Rick Perry associate says the GOP presidential candidate was not drunk during a "passionate" speech that went viral earlier over the past few days. REUTERS

Gov. Rick Perry has only hours to authorize a 30-day stay of execution of a Texas man, one of four scheduled to die by lethal injection in the state over the eight next days. While there are questionable circumstances surrounding at least two of those sentences, Perry, as he told the American public less than a week ago at the Republican presidential debate, likely isn't losing any sleep over it.

Perry received one of the biggest round of applauses at last week's GOP debate after moderator Brian Williams questioned him about his state's application of the death penalty. The Lone Star State has executed 234 prisoners since Perry became governor in 2000, more than any other governor in modern times.

Asked if presiding over the deaths of more than 200 individuals had given him any pause, Perry was detached, praising the Texas justice system and saying that anyone who has received a sentence for capital punishment likely deserves it.

No, sir. I've never struggled with that at all, Perry said in response to Williams, to the strong applause of the audience. When Williams asked Perry what he made of the spectators passionate reaction in favor of his state's execution record, the Republican frontrunner credited them for understanding right from wrong.

I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of - of cases, supportive of capital punishment, he said.

Case of Cameron Todd Willingham

While Perry may vouch for what he describes as Texas' thoughtful trial process, many critics have pointed to the fact that at least one innocent man may have been sent to his death since Perry has been in office.

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three daughters 13 years earlier. Willingham maintained his innocence until the end -- even refusing an offer to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence -- and the arson investigation used by investigators to convict him was questioned by leading experts before his execution.

However, according to multiple reports, Perry intervened in the forensic process, replacing three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission to keep the execution moving forward. He refused a stay of execution, despite mounting evidence that questioned Willingham's guilt.

Since 2004, the Innocence Project reports evidence in the case had led to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham did not set the fire in question.

Most people may say that such a situation definitely warrants a moment of pause, especially from an elected official.  Still, Perry has had other close calls -- if not for a lengthy investigation from Texas Monthly last year, Anthony Graves, another death row inmate who has since been proven innocent, would have faced lethal injection.

Case of Duane Buck

Now, we get to Duane Buck, an African American inmate in Texas who is scheduled to die on Thursday. Buck was convicted of killing his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, as well as her friend, Kenneth Butler, in a drunken rage in July 1995. While his guilt is not in dispute, the basis for his capital punishment sentence is. At Buck's sentencing hearing, the jury that set his punishment was informed by a psychologist that black people have a higher rate of violent behavior, a statement the prosecution used as its main argument against sentencing the defendant to an alternative penalty of life in prison.

It's already too late to save one inmate. Steven Woods was convicted of killing two people a decade ago, both found with multiple gunshot and stab wounds. Three months after his conviction, his accomplice testified that he had in fact murdered both of the victims and did not insinuate that Woods had played role in the slaying.

A last-minute appeal by Woods' lawyers was rejected last week by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, as well as a petition to have his death sentence commuted to life in prison. Woods is scheduled to be executed Tuesday night, unless Perry steps in and commutes his sentence, an unlikely outcome.

Whether capital punishment is right, wrong or a defensible symbol of American justice is not the point. The fact is, the Texas justice system's apparent eagerness to apply capital punishment is dangerous, and has led to the death of at least once innocent man. That is certainly something an individual aspiring for the U.S. presidency should lose sleep over.  

 

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