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August 23, 2011

Rick Perry's death penalty record already a topic of press coverage inside the Beltway

I pondered in this post last week whether and when the GOP might start debating Texas crime and punishment now that Governor Rick Perry is in the 2012 Presidential race.  Though Texas justice is not yet a topic of conversation on the GOP campaign trial, this new Washington Post article, headlined "Rick Perry holds the record on executions," reveals that the media inside the Beltway is already buzzing about Perry's death penalty record.  Here are excerpts from the extended piece:

Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry brings to the presidential race a law-and-order credential that none of his competitors can match — even if they wanted to. 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.

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 death.  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!” 

It is a bipartisan tradition.  The annual rate of executions was actually higher when George W. Bush was the state’s governor, and Democratic Gov. Ann Richards oversaw 50 executions during her four-year term without ever granting clemency.  “In the big picture, it is hard to see how Perry is much different from Bush or Richards,” said Jordan Steiker, co-director of the University of Texas Law School’s Capital Punishment Center.

That’s partly because Texans and their representatives give governors little room to slow down the process.  Decisions to seek the death penalty are made by local prosecutors. Unlike in some states, the governor does not sign death warrants or set execution dates. The state constitution forbids the governor from calling a moratorium on executions and allows clemency only when the Board of Pardons and Paroles recommends it.  Which is rarely.

Texas’s relatively streamlined process for death penalty appeals is overseen by an elected court not known for reversals.  Federal lawsuits go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans, which has the same reputation.

“In many states, executions are blocked because the state courts, the federal courts or both are intensely hostile to capital punishment and look for any excuse to overturn convictions,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California. “So the short answer to why Texas has the most executions is (1) size, and (2) not being obstructed by hostile courts.”...

Perry’s lone clemency decision — aside from halting executions of the mentally retarded and juveniles dictated by the Supreme Court — came in the case of a man who drove the getaway car and was not the triggerman in a murder.  Perry called for the legislature to reexamine the law, but it has not been changed.

After Perry signed a law offering life without the possibility of parole as an alternative to the death penalty, the total number of death sentences in Texas dropped, as it has in other states, from 23 in 2004 to eight in 2010, according to the anti-capital punishment Death Penalty Information Center....

On the campaign trail last week, Perry was asked how he defended the cost and inefficiency of the death penalty.  He said it was a decision to be made by states, and “in the state of Texas, our citizens have clearly said that they support by overwhelming majority capital punishment.”

If others disagree, he said, they should try to pass a constitutional amendment to halt the death penalty.  “I just lay it out there as an issue for Americans,” he said. “I will suggest to you that I’m going to work a whole lot harder on a balanced budget amendment to the United States constitution than I am for an amendment that will ban capital punishment.”

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August 23, 2011 at 05:52 PM | Permalink


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I see this as a plus for Perry. Finally a Governor who implements the death penalty and seeks justice for the victims. I'm sure liberals at the Times and Post would prefer a dysfuntional system like FL or CA. TX and VA actually are reducing death rows. Unlike 9 out of 10 DP states. Rick Perry deserves a lot of credit.

Posted by: DeanO | Aug 23, 2011 7:04:34 PM

I suspect that given SCOFLA's action today, you will see a lot more warrants in Florida.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 23, 2011 7:26:22 PM

It is curious how the media has repeatedly described several Texas Governors "overseeing" or "presiding" over executions. True, Texas is the leader by a long shot in executions carried out. But as I have posted before, the Governor of Texas does not order the execution. The state district court where the inmate was sentenced sets the execution date. The Governor in Texas can only commute a death sentence when the Parole Board so recommends. Also, the Governor can only grant a 1 time 30 day stay of execution for each case for whatever reason he/she deems necessary.

Posted by: DaveP | Aug 23, 2011 7:44:08 PM


Interesting how the Florida Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing that resulted in a month delay of Valle's execution to consider the new drug in the protocol. On the other hand, Virginia carried out their first execution last week using pentobarbital. I am not sure if Jackson's attorney raised the issue, but no court blocked it to hear about the new drug.

As for Florida, I would hope Scott would do the logical thing and start with the oldest cases to sign warrants. There are several inmates in FL who committed their crimes in the 1970's like Valle.

Posted by: DaveP | Aug 23, 2011 7:59:24 PM

DaveP's right that Texas goverors have very little to do with the death penalty one way or the other. And Steiker's right in the article that DP abolitionists would find no reason to prefer Ann Richards' record over Perry's. The much more important actors are the Legislature and the Court of Criminal Appeals. To say Perry "presided over" executions means merely that he was in office when they took place.

As an aside, though, notice a nascent Perry theme: The only way to fix a problem is to pass a constitutional amendment. He doesn't want to balance the budget by proposing cuts, taxes, etc., just push for a constitutional amendment. Similarly, he suggests those who oppose capital punishment "should try to pass a constitutional amendment to halt the death penalty." Why does everything have to be a constitutional amendment? Why not just pass laws?

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Aug 24, 2011 7:39:53 AM

Those who support Gov. Perry should be pleased with his death penalty record. According to Gallup, the DP is supported by the public by a little more than 2-1. The poll is here: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/gallup-poll-who-supports-death-penalty

According to this same poll, moderates -- the key group in next year's election -- support the DP 68-27. Moreover, a more recent Gallup poll, taken ten months ago, found that 18% think the DP is imposed too often, 26% about the right amount, and a fat 49% think it's not imposed often enough. See http://www.gallup.com/poll/1606/death-penalty.aspx

I don't know who will be the Republican nominee, although right now I would bet that Perry gets it. The Left, as ever living inside its own head instead of outside, thinks it's to its benefit to paint Perry as "responsible" for Texas's active death chamber (whether he is or not, as Grits correctly points out). Thus the Post article highlighting Perry's supposed complicity in it.

Fine. Have at it. The Post is too consumed by its own abolitionism to see that an article like this is going to backfire. In fact, Perry's record of unapologetic DP support will be -- as the pollinhg figures demonstrate -- a big plus.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 24, 2011 11:04:30 AM

Kill Bill,

Texas thanks you.

To bad we cain't do it by shootin' em up!

Posted by: Al Ammo | Aug 24, 2011 11:16:58 AM

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