In Texas, Perry Has Little Say In 'Ultimate Justice'

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As the longest-serving governor of Texas, Rick Perry has overseen the application of the death penalty more than any other U.S. governor — 236 executions, and counting.

While Perry is unquestionably a steadfast supporter of capital punishment, his overall record on criminal justice is more complicated than that.

'The Train Runs On Its Own'

Inside the Texas Prison Museum, off Interstate 45 in the city of Huntsville, sits a stout oak chair, its varnish dull with age, fitted with thick leather straps.

"This is the Texas electric chair dubbed 'Old Sparky' by the inmates," says Jim Willett, a former warden and director of the prison museum. "In fact, the inmates referred to the execution as 'riding the thunderbolt.' "

Before the chair was retired in 1964, 361 convicts were put to death in it by judicial electrocution.

"We get a lot of comments from people who think that we ought to put [this chair] back into use," says Willett, "that we ought to use that because it's too soft the way we put them to death these days."

Solid majorities of Americans favor capital punishment — Republicans, Democrats and independents.

Rick Perry knows that.

"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," the governor said to applause during a debate last month.

It's often said the Texas governor "presides" over an execution, but that's inaccurate. He doesn't sign a death warrant or set an execution date, as in some states. In Texas, the only power the governor has is to grant a single 30-day reprieve — and then only if his Pardons Board recommends it.

"The train runs on its own," says Jordan Steiker, co-director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas Law School. "Execution dates will be scheduled. The attorney general's office and the local district attorneys will defend the death sentences. The governor's office basically doesn't have to do anything, and capital punishment will run in a robust way in Texas."

Perry commuted one death sentence to life in prison in his more than 10 years in office. George W. Bush granted one commutation. Democrat Ann Richards — a liberal icon — did not grant any.

Critics say Perry is a more passionate advocate for the death penalty than his predecessors, and that zeal has manifested itself in two controversial actions.

In 2001, he vetoed a bill that would have stopped executions of convicted murderers who are mentally retarded; the Supreme Court ruled the next year that executing mentally retarded criminals is cruel and unusual punishment.

And in 2009, Perry was criticized for suppressing a state investigation that was looking into whether bogus forensic evidence was used to convict a man for capital murder. Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death for setting a fire that killed his three young daughters. A damning new documentary, Incendiary, questions whether Texas executed an innocent man, and whether Perry did everything he could to make the Willingham case go away.

In a scene from the film, Perry says: "This is a very heinous crime that was committed by an individual who's been described by his own defense attorney as a monster."

But is that the end of the story — that Perry favors frontier justice?

'He's Done Some Real Good'

There are criminal justice reformers in Texas who insist that Perry is anything but a hang-'em-high governor.

"I think Rick Perry is really getting a bum rap if and when he's being portrayed as some sort of bloodthirsty tyrant that just likes to kill people," says Jeff Blackburn, chief legal counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, which works to overturn wrongful convictions.

"What we're accustomed to, frankly, is the governor's office being the primary obstructer of reform and progress, and that has not been the case with Rick Perry," he says. "He's done some real good, and I think more good than any other governor we've had."

Blackburn gives four examples:

  • Perry supported the nation's most generous compensation package for exonerated prisoners.
  • He signed a probation reform bill that avoided 17,000 new prison beds.
  • He pardoned 38 defendants in the notorious Tulia drug sting, and then curbed the state's overzealous drug task forces.
  • And he signed legislation that gives prosecutors an option of life without parole, which keeps criminals off death row.

In fact, eight people were sent to death row last year in Texas, compared with 49 death sentences in 1994.

Criminal justice advocates won't go so far as to call Perry a reformer, and indeed, the governor has done little to exercise clemency in death penalty cases in which there are clear procedural flaws.

But to judge him solely on the 236 executions on his watch is unfair, says Scott Henson, who writes the respected criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast.

"Capital punishment is a media fetish," he says. "It's not really something that stands out as a remarkable part of Rick Perry's criminal justice record."

Henson has a theory: Perry has so little to do with executions that he strains to take credit for them, knowing how popular capital punishment is with voters.

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