A few more thoughts on the new GOP front runner and the death penalty and criminal justice reform:
First, conservative columnist Debra Saunders provides the strangest defense of Perry and the death penalty I’ve seen so far. Saunders makes three unconvincing arguments. First, she defends Perry from criticism for the sheer number of executions (234) carried out since he has been in office, noting that states with a tiny percentage of the homicides Texas does execute a higher percentage of convicted killers. I don’t know that that’s a convincing argument, but it’s also a response to a criticism few are making. The sheer number of executions carried out during Perry’s 11 years in the governor’s mansion may be a criticism of Texas in general, but it isn’t something over which Perry has much control.
Perry is mostly being criticized for trying to prevent an investigation into the execution of a possibly innocent man. I’ve also criticized him for his opposition to post-conviction DNA testing in another death penalty case, that of Hank Skinner. (The Texas Tribune also describes a number of other questionable executions since Perry’s been in office.) Saunders gives the Willingham case all of one paragraph, and doesn’t mention his replacing three members of the state forensics commission with pro-prosecution appointments, just before they were about to begin their investigation. (Perry’s new appointments included one prosecutor who is now accused of misconduct in a DNA exoneration, and who once suggested another prosecutor destroy evidence in order to prevent an innocence claim down the road.) After casually mentioning Willingham, Saunders then weirdly pivots to point out that Perry has commuted three other death sentences.
Saunders second defense of Perry is that Americans overwhelmingly support the death penalty. Which isn’t really a defense at all. I don’t think anyone has argued that the Willingham case could harm Perry in the election. I wish it would. But mostly, I’ve seen quite a bit of lament about the fact that it likely won’t harm him, and could even help him with GOP primary 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 ignores the more important question, one I’d like to hear Saunders (who can be pretty thoughtful on criminal justice issues) answer: Was Perry wrong to scuttle the investigation into the Willingham case?
Saunders last point is that if any candidate is likely to face voter backlash over the death penalty, it’s Obama, for his administration’s opposition to Texas’ execution of a Mexican citizen, and for the DEA’s raids of state death chambers that were procuring black-market sodium thiopental for lethal injections. This again is a horse race framing of the issue that ignores the hard questions. If Texas did in fact execute an innocent man, and Perry is trying to prevent the truth about that from coming out, does Saunders find that at all problematic? Does Saunders think Perry is correct to oppose post-conviction DNA testing for Hank Skinner, when such testing could cast serious doubt on his guilt?
Oddly, the criminal justice reform activist Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast actually provides a much more convincing defense of Perry’s record on criminal justice issues. Henson rattles off a long list of reforms Perry has backed and signed into law, and concludes:
So I don’t agree with Perry on every subject, by a longshot, and he’s probably used the threat of the veto to scuttle as much good legislation as actually passed during his time in office. But Perry’s record on criminal justice is more moderate and complex than his fire breathing pronouncements on the death penalty might lead one to expect. If you’re reading this from another state, there’s a good chance your Governor can’t match Perry’s record on criminal-justice reform.
Henson’s list is certainly worth considering, and it’s an important contribution to the discourse about Perry among those of us with an interest in these issues.
Still, while Perry’s record is better than most, I still think his actions in the Willingham case should disqualify him from the White House, for a reason that goes beyond crime and the death penalty: Faced with the prospect that the state of Texas may have done the worst thing a state government can possibly do to one of its citizens, Perry has expressed resolute faith that the government got it right, refused to even consider the strong evidence indicating otherwise, and has spent the years since trying to prevent the public from knowing what happened. Again, this goes beyond capital punishment. When you consider what we’ve seen from the last two administrations on issues like torture, rendition, black sites, state secrets, the innocent detainees in Gitmo, and a host of other issues, Perry’s demonstrated instincts in the Willingham case are disturbing. And they certainly aren’t the instincts you’d hope to find in a guy claiming to run as the limited government candidate.