Given last night's high-profile executions of Troy Davis in Georgia and Lawrence Russell Brewer in Texas, the question of the death penalty is certain to be discussed at tonight's Republican presidential candidate's debate (the program will air on Fox News Channel at 9 p.m. Eastern Time).
All told, September hasn't been a good month for fans of the death penalty. Republican Gov. Rick Perry's state, Texas, temporarily halted two executions in as many weeks over fears of racially biased expert testimony and claims of ineffectual legal representation. There was no question of Brewer's guilt in the horrific, racially charged 1998 dragging murder of James Byrd, but the victim's family came out against the death penalty. Over in Georgia, serious questions about the guilt of convicted cop killer Troy Davis transformed his execution into an international cause.
But Perry, the leading contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, is probably not worried about any of this because he is, he says, a true-blue small-government conservative.
During the previous GOP debate, Perry trashed Social Security and ObamaCare, and said that a Democrat or Republican in the White House didn't matter as much as "get[ting] spending under control and capping it, cutting it, and getting a balanced budget amendment." According to Perry (and many like-minded conservatives), government programs are almost always inefficient, ineffective, and riddled with bureaucratic incompetence. Yet in response to a question from NBC News' Brian Williams on whether the number of executions he has presided over as governor ever gave him pause, Perry expressed perfect faith in one aspect of government: the state of Texas's ability to execute only the guilty. His response brought forth applause from the audience.
Perry and another candidate for the presidential nomination, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), have the Republican party, Texas, and a rhetorical devotion to the Constitution and federalism in common. During his 11 years as governor, Perry has overseen 236 executions, tried to veto a bill to prevent executions of the mentally ill, and spoke out against the 2005 Supreme Court decision which blocked execution of criminals who were minors at the time of their crimes. Paul wrote in Liberty Defined: 50 Essential Issues That Affect Our Freedom that even if he were elected president, constitutionally he can't "interfere with the individual states that impose" the death penalty. That's another point of commonality: Perry agrees it's "a state-by-state issue" and added in his own book, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington, that people who don't support gun-toting and the execution of convicted killers should just avoid Texas completely.
Paul, though, wrote in the same chapter of Liberty Defined, “I no longer trust the U.S. government to invoke and carry out a death sentence under any conditions.” The 123 men exonerated while serving time on death row in the past 30 years was enough to convince him that something was wrong. He would prefer to err on the side of not one single case like Cameron Todd Willingham, whose 2004 execution for killing his three children in a house fire is now widely accepted to have been a mistake based mainly on junk science from supposed arson experts.
Unlike his fellow Texan, Perry is not similarly deluded or dismayed. He admits that yes, the recently exonerated Anthony Graves was innocent. Another man eventually pleaded guilty to the murders that Graves spent 18 years jailed for and would have lost his life over. The governor even signed off on the $1.45 million taxpayer-funded apology for Graves’ wrongful sentence. But conveniently enough, to Perry, every one of the 12 Texas death row exonerations of the past 30 years just proves that the system has all the safeguards it needs already in place.
The huge responsibility for overseeing executions isn't the governor's alone. But Perry plus the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) can be a fearsome team. An article in The Austin Chronicle article explained the appeal procedure, noting that, “Since 2001, the BPP has made three recommendations that a death sentence be commuted to life. In two of those cases, Perry rejected the recommendation and allowed the offender to be executed.”
In particular, the less said about Cameron Todd Willingham, the better for Perry. Not only did both Perry and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignore Willingham's appeals, but, according to The Washington Post:
The state forensic science commission began to review the case and the state’s arson unit after investigative journalists cast increasing doubt on Willingham’s guilt. But just before the commission was to hear from an investigator it had hired, Perry dismissed the chairman and replaced three members of the commission.
Perry’s newly installed chairman, a prosecutor who had called Willingham a “guilty monster,” delayed the commission’s hearings and asked the attorney general for an opinion about whether the commission could actively investigate the Willingham case.
Many media observers were horrified when the audience applauded Perry's absolute confidence in the death penalty during the last debate. As creepy as it may seem to some commentators, a 2011 Galllup poll shows a 65 percent majority of Americans support the death penalty. There's some fluctuation in the numbers. Support climbs 15 percentage points in Timothy McVeigh-type notorious crimes and drops to around 50 percent when life without parole is offered as an option.
Even the low end of that range makes the death penalty relatively easy politics—especially for people already inclined to support Perry. With the exception of Ron Paul and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the rest of the GOP candidates mostly fall into line. Johnson, the two-term governor who will be back on the stage for tonight's debate, changed his mind after thinking through the issue and reading the news. Last November, he told The New Republic, "Naively, I really didn't think the government made mistakes." Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), doesn't seem to have a record of her stance, but since she stresses her pro-life credentials, she's probably for executions (being pro-life and pro-death penalty is a popular package among Republican office-seekers). Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could have avoided the issue since the Bay State doesn't have capital punishment, but instead he introduced a (failed) bill to bring it back in 2005. And then there are folks such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who supported the death penalty for drug dealers.
A recent Politco article posited that people may just not care about the death penalty as an issue anymore, as its use fades from its peak in the tough-on-crime-crazed 1990s. (In 1999 there were 89 executions, in 2010 there were 49; presidential candidate Bill Clinton proved his bona fides by overseeing the execution of a low-I.Q. killer named Ricky Ray Rector.) Even Perry, with his eyes on the White House, wants to talk about bigger things like a balanced budget amendment. The death penalty, like supporting the status quo in the drug war, is just one more well-established conservative pennant to wave around, even as blind faith in its inerrant application contradicts everything else anti-government politicians claim to believe about the public sector.
And besides, Gov. Perry has the perfect take, no matter what happens: If you catch mistakes in time, it's proof the system works. If you don't, well, then there's no doubt the person was guilty and deserved Texas justice.
Lucy Steigerwald is an associate editor at Reason magazine.