The most disturbing and telling moment in last night’s GOP presidential debate, as my colleague Jamelle Bouie has noted, came when the audience heartily applauded Brian Williams’s mention of the 234 executions Gov. Rick Perry presided over in Texas.
Here’s the full transcript of the exchange. (Huff Po has the video).
WILLIAMS: Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. [Applause] Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?
PERRY: No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which—when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required.
But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.
WILLIAMS: What do you make of the dynamic that just happened here? The mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause.
PERRY: I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens—and it’s a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens. And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice.
In fact, the death penalty process in Texas has been irrevocably broken for quite some time. There is ample evidence that Perry ordered the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham—a case described in chilling detail by The New Yorker’s David Grann—even when presented with clear proof of Willingham’s innocence, or at the very least persuasive doubt about his supposed guilt. Perry then dismissed members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission who were investigating Willingham’s case, in order to try to cover up his cavalier execution of a possibly innocent man. That alone, in my opinion, should disqualify Perry from seeking the presidency.
But Perry’s reckless handling of the most severe power granted to a state executive—the power to take another life—didn’t stop there. According to the Texas Tribune, Perry’s “parsimonious use of clemency is notable because of continuing concerns about the ability of prisoners facing capital charges in Texas to retain quality legal representation, the execution of those who were minors when they committed their crimes, the ability of some prisoners to understand their punishment intellectually and the international ramifications of executing foreign nationals.”
In at least three cases currently before the state, serious questions have been raised about the legal handling of the cases, the guilt of the defendants, and Texas’ refusal to hearing new evidence that may well prove their innocence. Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic has a detailed summary of each case: Duane Edward Buck, Larry Ray Swearingen and Hank Skinner.
Since 2001, forty-one death row prisoners in Texas have been exonerated based on new DNA evidence. One prisoner, Anthony Graves, spent twelve years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. “When we’ve had twenty exonerations in Dallas County alone, obviously someone may have been executed for a crime they didn’t commit,” says Dallas County DA Craig Watkins. The fact that Perry has “never struggled…at all” with these cases tells us something about his moral compass, or lack thereof.
As my colleague Liliana Segura tweeted yesterday, “After Bush, anti–death penalty folks could not fathom a worse presidential candidate. Little did we know.”
When it comes to executing people—innocent or otherwise—Perry is Bush on steroids.