In this week's column, I discuss the case of Tim Cole, who was convicted of rape based on mistaken eyewitness tetimony and died while serving a 25-year sentence in a Texas prison. (He was denied parole twice because he refused to accept responsibility for a crime he did not commit.) I mentioned that a court of inquiry exonerated Cole based on DNA evidence in 2009, but I did not mention that Gov. Rick Perry granted him a posthumous pardon in 2010. That decision is one of 20 or so that Grits for Breakfast blogger Scott Henson, reviewing the governor's record on criminal justice issues, counts in Perry's favor. Perry also granted pardons to 35 people who were convicted of trumped-up charges as a result of drug stings in Tulia, Texas, and supported legal reforms inspired by that scandal. He signed bills aimed at reducing arrests for minor offenses, preventing and correcting wrongful convictions, and improving compensation for exonerees. He vetoed a bill, proposed in the wake of the 2009 raid on fundamentalist Mormons at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, that would have allowed the government to seize children without notifying their parents.
Henson says "there are many counterexamples," several of which he cites: Perry vetoed a 2005 bill that would have banned searches during traffic stops without probable cause or written consent, his clemency record "borders on pitiful" (but still probably compares favorably to Barack Obama's so far), and he seemed intent on sabotaging the Forensic Science Commission's re-investigation of the fatal fire for which Todd Willingham was executed in 2004. This juxtaposition illustrates Perry's mixed record: In 2001 he vetoed a bill that would have banned arrests for Class C misdemeanors (the maximum penalty for which is a $500 fine), while in 2007 he signed a bill that allowed police to issue citations insteading of making arrests for various Class B and Class C misdemeanors, including marijuana possession. Henson concludes that "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."