It was Perry's record that received loud, seemingly spontaneous, and chilling
applause during the Sept. 7 debate among Republicans. Meanwhile, the work of
the non-profit Innocence Project goes on quietly nationwide and in Texas, where
its efforts have been met with government resistance.
In the debate, NBC’s Brian Williams said to Perry: “Your state
has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times.
Have you...” The audience at the Ronald Reagan library and museum interrupted
with wild applause. Williams continued: “Have you struggled to sleep at
night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”
“No sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all,” replied
Perry, who went on to talk about Texas justice in an oversimplified way that
failed to address the question’s underlying truth: that innocent people
have been jailed and executed in Texas and that Perry’s administration
is taking steps to make such horrors even more likely in the future.
Williams followed up: “What do you make of that dynamic that just happened
here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?”
Perry threw red meat to the crowd when he answered: “I think Americans
During Perry’s time in office, five death row inmates in his state have
been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
One person who wasn’t so fortunate, Cameron Todd Willingham, was executed
under Perry’s watch, even as new evidence suggested he was innocent. Perry
intervened to halt the exculpatory forensic process in the Willingham case, replacing
three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. He refused to grant a
stay of execution.
Barry Scheck, the noted attorney who heads the Innocence Project, is now fighting
to have the Willingham investigation continue, for the benefit of others who
might be falsely convicted. Scheck wrote in the Houston Chronicle that Texas
officials “are protecting themselves and shielding Gov. Rick Perry from
potential criticism and political backlash stemming from the fact that a man
was allowed to be executed even though his conviction was based on flawed and
The former chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission has now told
CNN that Perry and other Texas officials worked to “squash” the Willingham
Since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, more than one third of all
executions in the U.S. have taken place in Texas. That’s nothing to cheer
There are many reasons to oppose capital punishment. In my view, it is morally
wrong and inappropriate regardless of other debatable considerations such as
deterrence of crime, and monetary cost to society.
But even among those who support the death penalty – including Rick
Perry and the audience at the debate – the possibility of wrongfully executing
someone, as well as undermining the process by which such miscarriages could
be avoided, should be viewed as nothing less than the horror that it is.
When the audience burst out with applause, Perry could have said, “Hold
on. We’re all entitled to our views, and as governor I do what I believe
is best for my state. But it’s wrong to cheer over anyone’s death,
under any circumstances.”
Instead Perry smirked. And the audience cheered. And the nation was left to
wonder whether this was simply another display of shamelessly extreme politics,
or whether it reflects a deeper, more troubling divide in our society.
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.