Why Is Rick Perry the Poster Boy for Limited Government?

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Salon’s Justin Elliott riffs on that appalling “It takes balls to execute an innocent man” comment from a Texas GOP focus group participant, and wonders if the Cameron Todd Willingham case may actually help Rick Perry in the GOP primary. As Elliott points out, it almost certainly isn’t going to hurt him. And that’s bad enough.

I’d like to hear some of the more thoughtful conservatives lining up behind Perry weigh in on this. Here’s how I see it: A state government has no more awesome, complete, or solemn power than the power to execute its own citizens. If you’re going to claim to loathe big government, this is one area where you ought to be more skeptical of government than any other. Hell, if for no other reason than that it can’t be undone.

The problem here isn’t necessarily that Perry presided over the execution of a man who was likely innocent. If Perry had shown some concern about what happened in the Willingham case, maybe set up an investigation into what went wrong, perhaps even attempted to suspend executions in Texas until he could be sure checks were in place to prevent the execution of an innocent, the way George Ryan did in Illinois—if he’d done any of that, he’d at least have shown some appropriate skepticism. He’d have shown that he’s at least cognizant of the fact that government employees in law enforcement and criminal justice are just as fallible and subject to the trappings of power, bureaucracy, and public choice theory as government employees in, say, tax collection or the regulation of business.

Instead, Perry couldn’t even acknowledge the possibility of doubt about Willingham’s guilt. He justified his stubbornness by pointing out that Willingham also allegedly beat and was verbally abuse toward his wife, as if that were at all relevant to Willingham murder trial. (Unfortunately, lots of men beat their wives. Most of them don’t also burn their children alive.) More importantly, Perry’s pivot to a “Willingham was a bad man” defense glosses over the most alarming aspect of Willingham’s case, which is much bigger than Willingham: The state of Texas used completely bogus forensic evidence to convict a man in a capital case. (The state also used testimony from a fraud psychologist in the death penalty portion of Willingham’s trial, as it had in dozens of other trials.)  If that was allowed to happen here, it has happened in other cases, and in other contexts. Worse, when the state’s forensics committee attempted to investigate Willingham’s execution, Perry replaced the committee members pushing for an investigation with new members more sympathetic to prosecutors.

Perry was confronted with the possibility that the government over which he presided may have abused it’s most awesome and sacred power. And instead of skepticism of government, he showed deference. Instead of demanding transparency, he actively obfuscated. Instead of exposing and demanding accountability for a possibly historical government error, Perry used his own power to keep himself and his constituents ignorant, lest they begin to question whether government should have such power. And it’s not as if there aren’t ample other examples of the flaws with Texas’ death penalty and its criminal justice system. Hell, Texas has one county that that has seen more exonerations than all but a few states.

If it helps, think of the the death penalty as a “government program.” It’s one thing to support this government program. It’s something else to refuse to believe your favorite government program could ever do wrong. And it’s downright pathological to be so confident in your favorite government program’s infallibility that you actively undermine an investigation into said government program’s possible flaws.

And he’s doing it again. In the Hank Skinner case, Perry has actively fought DNA testing that could confirm the innocence (or guilt) of another Texas man on death row. Skinner was at one point hours from execution before the Supreme Court intervened (the intervening justice was Antonin Scalia, believe it or not). In Skinner’s case, the prosecution actually began to conduct DNA testing on crime scene evidence, then stopped when the first tests confirmed Skinner’s version of events. Perry again justified willful ignorance in this case by simply noting that he’s personally convinced of Skinner’s guilt. As if there aren’t dozens of examples of what appeared to be clearly guilty people who were later exonerated by DNA. With Skinner, Perry is not only choosing willful ignorance over transparency, he’d rather risk executing another innocent person than possibly undermine support for the government’s power to execute its citizens.

I understand the law and order instinct on the right. I also understand why people support the death penalty. But you can hold both of those positions and still be disgusted by Rick Perry’s actions in the Willingham and Skinner cases. In fact, I’d say that if you’re going to claim the banner of limited government with any integrity, you damned well ought to be.

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75 Responses to “Why Is Rick Perry the Poster Boy for Limited Government?”

  1. #1 |  Z | 

    Oh yeah fun Texas death penalty fact of the day: Texas had a good run using a shrink to testify that minorities were inherently more dangerous and likely to re-offend.

  2. #2 |  Aresen | 

    PUT | August 12th, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    NONSENSE! Taking a long time to decide whether to kill somebody or not means you need lots of investigators and lawyers and prison guards and hundreds of other people. The small government approach is to make a decision and GET IT DONE!

    So, Big Government is all about the number of people involved; the actual POWERS of government are irrelevant. It’s good to have small government so you can do things quickly, even if they are evil.

    mmmmkay, right.

    I will point out that the government presence of George III in the 13 Colonies was considerably smaller than the government presence of George Washington after his inauguration.

  3. #3 |  Rich Jones | 

    Yeah, and Pontius Pilate had balls too.

  4. #4 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    What we have here, sadly, is the consequent backlash to decades of listening to well placed fools agitate in favor of the very likely guilty-as-sin (Mumia, Ira Einhorn, and Polansky spring immediately to mind).

    The cure, if there is one, would be to strongly differentiate between the philosophies of Rule Of Law and its distant lowbrow cousin Lawr N’ Odah. I’m still generally in favor of having the Death Penalty, if only so that there is something to hold over violent criminals already serving Life sentences. I’m ALSO in favor of putting Agents of the State (like cops and prosecutors) who abuse their position to put an innocent person at risk of his life on trial for Conspiracy to Commit Murder …. and of executing the most egregiously guilty.

    (wouldn’t THAT set the cat among the pigeons!)

    No system involving humans will ever be perfect, but the one we have now needs some serious work.

  5. #5 |  Justthisguy | 

    I have read that Perry was seen entering the Bilderberger meeting, presumably so that he could be examined and vetted.

  6. #6 |  C.A. | 

    Was that person who said “It takes balls to execute an innocent man” being ironic or expressing admiration? Here’s the actual quote from Politico:

    “Multiple former Hutchison advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man – Cameron Todd Willingham – and got this response from a primary voter: “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.””

    That primary voter might not have been expressing approval. He might have been appalled at the chutzpah of a state leader who didn’t care whether the person being executed was innocent or not. Because it does take metaphorical “balls” to do something so senseless and contrary to human decency and not feel the need to slink away in shame and never run for public office again.

  7. #7 |  raphael a | 

    The sad reality is that the punishing or even executing of innocent American citizens by sitting politicians is prevalent among both parties, and therefore not a logical disqualifier. Jane Swift, Martha Coakley and Janet Reno all incarcerated innocent daycare owners. Reno needlessly killed a hundred more in Waco. Clinton had Ricky Ray Rector needlessly put to death, and brought false charges against Billy Ray Dale. Barack Obama has no qualms in forcing innocents to go to dangerous DC and Chicago schools, where significant numbers are murdered each year, sometimes in gruesome manners. Kennedy left the Bay Of Pigs mercenaries, American citizens serving at his behest to be captured or die.
    Setting aside the wars that most libertarians oppose, I am convinced that Clinton could have aided the Belgians in stopping at least some of the slaughter in Rwanda had he not been looking to save his post-Mogadishu neck, and Obama can do more to save those now are slowly dying in East Africa.
    Want a presidential candidate without blood on his hands? Try Roseanne Barr. She also sings a mean national anthem.

  8. #8 |  GaryM | 

    Perry is a fundamentalist of the worst kind, and the Bible is full of death penalties for minor offenses. Is it any wonder he doesn’t have much concern for human life?

  9. #9 |  Patti Labelle « Duncan Roy's Blog | 

    […] On a serious note.  Those of you who sneered at my ‘Palin and her ilk’ warning…take a look at Rick Perry.  The newest warrior of Christ who wants to be President of The United States.  If you thought Palin and Bachmann were bad…read this. […]

  10. #10 |  Dudley Sharp | 

    None of the forensic reviews of the fire in Willingham case can exclude arson in that case.

    Texas state representatives have upheld that the fire was arson and they had first hand knowledge, as well as a review of the evidence that none of the critical forensic scientists had.

    The two findings are 1) that it is arson and 2) that arson cannot be excluded.

    As Gerald Hurst states: “I never had a case where I could exclude arson,” “It’s not possible to do that.”(1)

    Hurst is the scientist whose findings were rejected by Gov. Perry, as well as the courts, asa basis for a stay, shortly before Willingham’s execution.

    Hurst is definitely correct in the Willingham case, that arson can’t be excluded.

    However, I find Hurst’s statement too broad. For fires containing a flashover, it will often make it impossible to exclude arson. But, I don’t believe that in all flashover fires or in all fires that don’t have a flashover that arson can always be included as a possible cause.

    Much additional evidence points to Willingham’s guilt (2). You should read about it before your next article on this case.

    Some relevant readings:

    False innocence claims by anti death penalty activists are all too common. Some examples:

    “The Innocent Executed: Deception & Death Penalty Opponents”

    The 130 (now 138) death row “innocents” scam

    Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review”

    “At the Death House Door” Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted?”


    1) “Family’s Effort to Clear Name Frames Debate on Executions”, John Schwartz, New York Times, October 14, 2010,

    2) A full review of the case:
    “Cameron Todd Willingham: Another Media Meltdown”, A Collection of Articles

  11. #11 |  Brett Johnstom | 

    Great article hopefully people will wake up about Perry.

  12. #12 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    In what way does this quote of a Right Wing messianic twit disqualify the speaker to a greater degree than common quotes of Radical Chic idiocy attributed to the Left Wing Messianic Twit currently in the White House?

    Use both sides of the paper if necessary.

  13. #13 |  Rick Perry for President? : Minor Thoughts | 

    […] These are the concerns that make me worry about having Governor Perry become President Perry. […]

  14. #14 |  Interesting Stuff for a Rainy Sunday » ReasonAndJest.com | 

    […] Radley Balko: Why is Rick Perry the Poster Boy for Limited Government? […]

  15. #15 |  One Up, One Down » Right Thinking | 

    […] He also has been very cavalier in asserting the most awesome power the government has: the power to executed people. On the other hand, Texas one of the leaders in taking a more sensible approach to crime, having […]

  16. #16 |  RMD | 

    This is so sad, but it details the plight of many inmates. It takes balls to admit you made a mistake and correct that mistake, that’s what REAL men do. But the United Snakes, including the Public Pretenders, are all cowards who convict or passively watch people get convicted of charges they are truly innocent of, in order to gain favor with their decreasing public supporters. I live in CA, which I think is far worse than TX as far as convicting innocent people, but thankfully they’re very slow with executions.

    Mr. Willingham’s case is the highest level of misjustice because he can’t be brought back. However, many people are convicted everyday of crimes they didn’t convict but most don’t even trust being tried by their peers in a jury trial because many in the jury is trying to get a smile from the United Snakes. I don’t know why, it’s not going to save their a** if they’re ever charged. This is a true event; imagine going to traffic court for a misdemeanor hit & run of a parked car and then being charged with felony vandalism because the DA wants to revoke your probation and send you to prison……

    All we have to do is look around at all the corupt people finally getting exposed in the justice system, from the police on up to the judges for crimes like child molestation, police brutality, murder, stealing public funds, fraud, rape, tampering with evidence, etc. Now do you REALLY trust the “flawless” government to fairly charge, convict and take the life (death sentence or life imprisonment) of your fellow citizens?

  17. #17 |  RMD | 

    …. In CA the hit & run I described was accidental by an unexperienced 20 year old unlicensed driver on probation who panicked after hitting the parked car. The DA turned a accidental misdemeanor traffic violation into an intentional malicious felony crime only to violate probation and send the young man, who, by the way, has NO criminal record aside from what he’s on probation for. The Public Pretender stood passively by to allow it. This is our justice system at their best work.

  18. #18 |  The Republican Primary – Act 2 « The Fifth Column | 

    […] by the way, also has an affinity for having people executed, guilty or not. In the Hank Skinner case, Perry has actively fought DNA testing that could confirm the innocence […]

  19. #19 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    @56 – I find it offensive to the male sex, I’m quite sure innocence wouldn’t stop, oh, Palin from ordering it either.

  20. #20 |  Phelps | 

    Texas has executed fewer innocent men than Mexicans killed by Obama’s Operation Fast and Furious.

    The sad fact is that Perry is the best we can do right now on limited government. The rest are even worse.

  21. #21 |  fwb | 

    For whatever reason, those on the inside of government always view everyone who works for the government as being angelic, with a bent for truth, honesty, etc. Those of us on the outside have the polar opposite view of the government and its minions. It is easy to see how today’s government has morphed from what the Framers attempted to give us into the creature that ate NY.

    We get what we get because humans are freaking evil.

  22. #22 |  demize! | 

    ‘Limited’ to being a douchbag, ammiright?

  23. #23 |  Why Rick Perry Won’t Unite the Republican Party | Speculative Thinker | 

    […] power to its governor than other states. But that’s an insufficient response to Balko, who notes that “government has no more awesome, complete, or solemn power than the power to execute its […]

  24. #24 |  Rick Perry Supporters Play With Madness | Decibel Magazine | 

    […] fides of many of today’s loudest “small government” boosters are, as Radley Balko notes, questionable at best. And I say that as someone who actually would like to see most of the little […]

  25. #25 |  More on Rick Perry and Criminal Justice | The Agitator | 

    […] voters. The case against Perry’s actions in the Willingham case is a moral one. And one that calls into question the consistency of his limited-government credentials. Framing the issue in a horse race context […]