Thursday, September 8, 2011

Yeah, Rah, Death Penalty!

In my continuing examination of Gov. Rick Perry and his “out there” political views, I want to focus on one particular issue that was raised in last night’s debate: Capital punishment. I think that Gov. Perry’s response to the question during the debate, when presented in light of the actual record in Texas, is potentially illustrative of just how dangerous Gov. Perry really is. Moreover, the response from the audience (more on that in a bit) is also, I think, illustrative in some respects of just where the Republican party and its core constituents are policy-wise right now.

But before getting into Gov. Perry’s views on the subject , I want to take a moment to talk about my own views on the death penalty. While this may come as a surprise to some (given that I’m apparently regarded as a left-wing wacko by some), I’m not against the death penalty. But I’m not necessarily for it, either. I have no problem with having the state execute those convicted of the most heinous crimes. But I would prefer not to execute people who might be innocent and I’d prefer to err on the side of not executing people. Moreover, I’m concerned that there may be a racial element at work both in deciding against which defendants the state will seek to impose the death penalty and the way that juries and judges handle capital cases. I also worry about the difficulty that a public defender has in providing an adequate defense to a defendant accused of a capital offense. And I’m very concerned when I hear about the possibility of evidence that might exonerate a person convicted of a capital offense not being allowed for various procedural reasons. But in cases where the crime was heinous, the evidence is clear, the accused received a fair trial and was not treated differently than other defendants, the jury was not tainted, and there is no remotely plausible claim for exonerating evidence, then, in those cases, I think that the death penalty may be an acceptable punishment.

Now, back to last night’s debate. Here is a brief video clip of a question posed and Gov. Perry’s response:


Before delving into Gov. Perry’s response, I want to note my disgust at the fact that the crowd actually cheered the fact that Texas, under Gov. Perry, had executed 234 people. That people may support the death penalty is fine. But to actually cheer that people have been executed. Oh, I suppose cheering when Osama Bin Laden was killed may be acceptable, but I’m very concerned that a large group of Americans would cheer that 234 of their fellow citizens have been executed. We should feel sad that so many people resort to or commit crimes, especially capital crimes. We should, I guess, feel a sense of satisfaction that the justice system worked and that the families of the victims received a measure of justice and some kind of closure. But executing a criminal, let alone 234 criminals, doesn’t seem like something we should be cheering; death is a bit more final than say a touchdown at a Texas Longhorns football game.

Now add to this the outpouring of Islamophobia (“Ground Zero Mosque!” and cries of sharia [rhymes with Maria…]), homophobia, nativism (anti-immigrant), and even some racism and anti-Semitism coming from some elements of the Republican Party and Tea Party electorate and this cheer begins to take on a sort of bloodlust quality. No, I’m not suggesting that rank and file Republicans are out to execute gays or Muslims. But what I am suggesting is that combining a political worldview that cheers executions with a perspective that views so many people as “others” or “not really American” or “out to get us” is trending down a potentially dangerous path.

Whew. OK. Breathe.

And now back (again) to Gov. Perry. The principal point of his response that I want to comment upon is his statement that he has “never struggled” with the possibility that one of the criminals executed on his watch might have been innocent. Maybe I’m just too soft, but I want to know that my elected officials do struggle with thoughts like this; I want them to understand and recognize the finality and severity of the decision to execute someone and to struggle with the decision in order that we can all be comfortable that the correct decision was made. If, as Gov. Perry claims, he does not struggle with the issue at all, then that tells me that he either doesn’t really understand the severity and finality of his decision or he just doesn’t care. Unfortunately, I suspect that the he understands quite well. President Bush used to talk about “compassionate conservatism”; there is no compassion in Gov. Perry. He’s more akin to the fictionalized old West hangin’ judge for whom hard evidence isn’t really needed.

But I also want to look a bit more closely at Gov. Perry’s explanation. He claims that he doesn’t struggle because he trusts the judicial system. If that’s true, then explain this:

Yesterday, the Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry, abruptly dismissed the chairman and two members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission investigating the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, which I wrote about last month in The New Yorker. The move came two days before the commission was scheduled to hear crucial evidence that Willingham was put to death, in 2004, based on arson theories that have since been disproven by modern science. The new chairman appointed by Perry promptly postponed Friday’s hearing, when the noted fire scientist Craig Beyler was supposed to testify regarding his findings.

Beyler, who had been hired by the commission to review the original arson investigation, had determined that there was no scientific evidence that Willingham had set the fire that killed his three children, in 1991, and that the original investigators had relied on folklore and methods that defied rational reasoning. Several of the country’s other top fire scientists have reached a similar conclusion.

Perry, who is in a contested campaign for reelection, had been governor at the time of Willingham’s execution. Before the execution, Willingham’s lawyer had asked Perry to grant a stay based on a report from Dr. Gerald Hurst, a leading fire expert, who had concluded that “there is not a single item of physical evidence in this case which supports a finding of arson.” Willingham’s request, however, was denied.

Perry insisted that the three commissioners’ terms had expired and the change was routine. But the ousted chairman, Sam Bassett, told the Houston Chronicle that he had heard from Perry’s staffers that they were “concerned about the investigations we were conducting”; another of the removed commissioners told the Associated Press that Perry’s office informed him that the governor was “going in a different direction.”

Bassett added in a statement, “In my view, we should not fail to investigate important forensic issues in cases simply because there might be political ramifications.” Unfortunately, the process has now been tainted.

It’s one thing if Gov. Perry doesn’t struggle with the execution of someone when there is no question as to the person’s guilt. But when legitimate questions arise, don’t we want our elected officials to struggle — even just a little bit — to know that they’re doing the right thing? And don’t we expect those officials to want to be sure that truth and justice prevail in the end? Gov. Perry could have stayed the execution long enough for a court to examine the overwhelming exonerating evidence. If the court dismissed the evidence, then the execution could have gone forward. But Gov. Perry didn’t struggle with the decision; he just allowed a man who appears to have been wrongly convicted to be executed by the State of Texas and then stopped an investigation that might have posthumously exonerated that man. Gov. Perry was apparently able or willing to just ignore the modern scientific evidence. His recent comments of global warming and evolution suggest that ignoring science is not something he struggles with under any circumstances.

Something else to consider: Gov. Perry talks about this faith in the Texas criminal justice system. We should all have faith in our judicial system. But that can’t be a blind faith and it must be a faith that can acknowledge and learn from errors. So how does Gov. Perry’s faith in the system reconcile the fact that since he became Governor in 2001, Texas has exonerated at least 41 people on the basis of more modern scientific evidence. Given a statistic like that, shouldn’t we expect a Governor to want to be absolutely, positively, without any possibility of doubt, sure that available scientific evidence wouldn’t exonerate a convicted criminal before that criminal is executed?

Perhaps Gov. Perry’s cavalier/cowboy approach will play well with the Republican base. But how will that attitude go over with the broader electorate? And what does his attitude toward executing people tell us about how Gov. Perry might approach other issues for which we’d expect a President to engage in some sort of internal struggle? Would he have any sort of internal struggle before launching missiles at terrorists? What if those terrorists were in the middle of a densely populated civilian area? Would he struggle before deciding to start a war or sending American soldiers off on dangerous missions? Would he struggle before making any decision that might cause harm to some, even if the decision was for the greater good? I’d like to think that my President would struggle with those kinds of issues so that, when a decision was reached, that President could be confident in the rightness of the decision and the thoroughness of the investigation and discussions upon which that decision is based. And I would be very worried about a President who could make life and death decisions with a cavalier attitude and without even stopping to contemplate the evidence. You know, there’s a great big button that a President can push that would cause a whole lot of damage. I’d like to know that a President Perry wouldn’t just push that button to show Russia or China or Iran just how macho he is; unfortunately, I don’t have the sense that he’d think twice about pushing that button, either.

Yet one more reason why I think it is imperative that our next President not be Rick Perry.

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