Perry’s Death Penalty Record Likely Won’t Move Voters
On Thursday, the state of Texas is scheduled to execute its eleventh death row inmate this year.
Duane Buck was convicted of killing Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler in 1995. Buck’s lawyers have asked for a new sentencing hearing, citing racially-biased testimony in his original sentencing.
The state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected Buck’s request for a stay of execution earlier this week. Prosecutors have also declined to intervene.
The governor’s office is one of the only options left for delaying his execution.
Governor Rick Perry’s record on the death penalty has gotten some attention in the past few weeks, as he seeks the GOP presidential nomination.
Perry earned a big round of applause in the GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Presidential Library last week for his record on the death penalty.
Moderator Brian Williams pointed to, at the time, the 234 executions the state has carried out under Perry’s watch. Williams asked Perry if he lost any sleep wondering whether any of those executed might have been innocent.
“No sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all,” Perry replied.
Perry said there is a fair, thoughtful process for administering the death penalty in Texas.
“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,” Perry said to applause.
His stance on capital punishment is in line with the mainstream of voter opinion.
Polls in Texas routinely show strong support for the death penalty. Even national polls find a majority of voters back it. But for all that Texas law-and-order talk, it should be noted that generally, “Texas’ governor has very limited power with respect to capital punishment,” said Steve Hall, who was a staffer for the Texas attorney general in the 1980s. He now runs the group StandDown Texas, which advocates for a review of the state’s death penalty system.
Hall says while in other states governors sign execution warrants and set execution dates, “that’s not the case in Texas. The governor, at least in theory, has a very limited role of being able to hand out a single 30-day reprieve in scheduled executions,” Hall said.
That is a power Perry has only used twice in his 10-plus years in office.
Hall points out that decisions to seek the death penalty are made by local prosecutors and appeals are decided by elected judges.
The governor does appoint members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which makes recommendations on whether to commute death sentences and issue reprieves.
“I think it’s readily acknowledged that members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles look to the Governor for any bit of signal that he or she would like to advise,” Hall said.
But Perry’s critics point to some notable cases where he did play a major role, or was conspicuously silent.
There is the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, where critics say the governor declined to intervene, despite evidence that there were flaws in the science used to convict Willingham. Some also say Perry interfered in the review of that science.
There were executions of mentally handicapped convicts and those that were juveniles when they committed crimes, carried out before the U.S. Supreme Court banned executing such people.
There were the cases of two Mexican nationals executed over the protests of the Mexican and other governments. One was Humberto Leal, who was convicted of raping and murdering a San Antonio girl. His lawyers asked for a delay in his execution.
They argued Leal was not given access to legal advice from the Mexican Consulate at the time of his arrest, in violation of an international treaty.
Some argued executing him in the face of international protests over treaty obligations was not just bad for America’s image, but potentially bad for Americans themselves.
“This is not to be nice to foreigners or to comply with super-national institutions, it’s important to comply because we enter into these treaties to protect our own nationals,” said John Bellinger, who was a State Department lawyer in the Bush Administration. He was among a half-dozen diplomats who wrote to Governor Perry in June, asking for a delay in Leal’s execution.
“For the U.S. not to comply with our obligations makes it much harder for us to tell other countries that they have to comply with their obligations to Americans,” Bellinger said.
Perry declined to intervene and Leal was executed as scheduled.
Perry’s solid record on the death penalty may be a plus among GOP primary voters, as seen in the response at the California debate last week. But as a major issue in a general election, perhaps not so much.
“The reason ‘not so much’ is that death penalty is like abortion. It’s one of those issues that the two parties are different on,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior adviser to Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000, and now with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
The Gore campaign sought to use George W. Bush’s execution record against him. At the time he held the record for the most executions under a single governor. But Kamarck says the issue isn’t one that moves voters one way or another.
“That being said, if it plays into a larger narrative about the candidate himself or herself, then it can become an issue,” Kamarck said.
Kamarck said the way a candidate talks about their record on the topic can be more influential. For instance, she points to the moment in last week’s Reagan Library debate, when the audience cheered Texas’ record of executions.
“If it looks like he is bragging about or proud of the fact that he had to put so many people to death, you know, I think that kind of rubs people’s sensibilities the wrong way, even if they don’t have any particular objection to the death penalty,” Kamarck said.
As for Duane Buck, who’s scheduled to be executed Thursday night, a spokesperson for Governor Perry said Wednesday that the office had not yet received a formal request for a 30-day stay. The office says when it does, staff will review it like any other request.
There is a twist, however: with Governor Perry out of state on the presidential campaign trail, the call will ultimately be made by Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, in his role as acting governor.