Rick Perry: Cheering On the Death Machine


New York Times
September 12, 2011

Even supporters of the death penalty used to consider execution a solemn state responsibility, not an occasion for celebration. But the crowd of Republicans who gathered at the Reagan Library last week to watch their presidential candidates debate actually applauded and cheered when a moderator noted that Texas had executed 234 inmates under Gov. Rick Perry, by far the most under any governor in modern times.

Then came Mr. Perry’s blithe denial that he had ever struggled with a single one of those state killings. Texas has a “thoughtful, a very clear process,” he said, which ensures everyone a fair hearing, so there is no need to lose sleep over the possibility of executing an innocent person.

It may not trouble Mr. Perry, but any clear-eyed observer would be shocked at the grim momentum of his state’s death machine, which stops for no suggestion of error. The clearest and best-known illustration of that was the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for the home fire that killed his three children, despite egregious flaws in the forensic science that helped convict him. In the face of serious questions, Mr. Perry refused to grant a reprieve for Mr. Willingham, and years later replaced the members of a state forensic commission that was about to hold hearings on the execution.

That is hardly the only questionable case during his tenure, as shown by a database developed by The Texas Tribune, a partner of  The New York Times. In a recent report, The Tribune described the case of Kelsey Patterson, who was executed for two 1992 shootings despite a recommendation to Mr. Perry for clemency by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on the grounds of clear mental incapacity. He has also approved the execution of a man whose lawyer suffered from mental illness and was repeatedly disciplined; a man involved in a fatal robbery who did not kill the victim; and a man who was 17 at the time of a murder and received clemency recommendations from the trial judge and several legislators.

Mr. Perry is well known for being extremely parsimonious with his clemency authority. His attitude about death may make sense in the hard-edged Republican primaries, but other voters should have serious doubts about a man who seems to have none.

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