Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Gov. Perry and the Death Penalty

"I am always going to error on the side of life," claimed Texas Governor Rick Perry in last night's Tea Party sponsored Republican presidential debate. He wasn't being ironic. Not intentionally, anyway.
   At the time, Perry was defending himself against an onslaught by his opponents regarding his decision to mandate an HPV vaccine for 12 year-old girls in his state. If his statement accurately describes his thought process regarding that particular issue, whatever its merits, good for him. But it's a maxim he seems to abandon when it comes to meting out the ultimate penalty. When in last week's debate Brian Williams asked him to reflect upon the 234 executions he has presided over as governor (a statistic that excited the audience), Perry performed his version of waxing philosophic.

   Perry's unequivocal assertion that he has "never struggled with that at all" is chilling considering the incredibly strong evidence that he signed off on the execution of a completely innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, in 2004. Aided by improvements in arson investigation forensics since Willingham's conviction, numerous experts in the field have concluded that the 1992 fire that killed his three small children was accidental and that the original indicators of Willingham's guilt are now without any factual basis. Perry knows this.
   Another likely innocent victim of Texas's liberal application of capital punishment is Ruben Cantu. While Cantu was executed before Perry became governor, it was during his term (2005) that the Houston Chronicle reported that both of the key witnesses against him admitted to lying about his participation in the crime, leading the district attorney who recommended that Cantu be charge with capital murder to believe he had made a grave mistake. Perry, however, remains confident enough in Texas's judicial system to proudly continue engineering its train of executions.
   These travesties—along with numerous cases of dubious executions and proven wrongful convictions from around the country—should humble Perry. However, the analogy he used in this same debate, conflating Galileo and climate science deniers like himself, suggests that Perry is not the type to let facts spoil his conveniently held beliefs. His callousness—or genuine inability to reflect—on this question of life and death should disqualify him from the presidency.
   In so much of the Western world, the death penalty is considered a remnant of a more barbaric time—a form of justice more suited to a society that locked the mentally ill away in barred asylums than to the more sanitized epoch in which we live. This monstrous practice is dying its own very slow death. But for now, there are still places like China, Iran, and Texas where it receives a willing stay of execution.

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