I'm aware that Catholic citizens don't appear to feel they have much of a duty at all to hold non-Catholic, or even Catholic, politicians to positions of morality as voiced by the Church. Take, for instance, our apparent willingness to overlook a politician's "exceptions" on abortion, his support for ESCR, or the universal support among American politicians for public funding of birth control via programs like Medicaid (and now in all health insurance plans as well). There seems to be little limit to what we can overlook when the politician in question is one of "our guys," and that goes for Catholic Republicans and Democrats alike.
Nevertheless, I think that examining Rick Perry's record on the death penalty is a helpful look at his positions and even, to a certain extent, his character. It may not make some Catholics any less inclined to vote for him, but I would think that addressing these sorts of questions now, while we are still in early-primary days and the field of Republican hopefuls is quite crowded, might be a beneficial thing to do.
Let's begin with a look at some factual information:
In tough-on-crime Texas, supporting the death penalty is practically a political prerequisite, and Gov. Rick Perry has nailed that qualification, overseeing the executions of 230 prisoners, more than any other modern governor of any state.
“He certainly would stand out among other governors,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “But that’s just sort of a given in Texas.” [...]
During his 10-year tenure, Perry has overseen nearly half of the 470 executions in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974. In that time, public opinion about the death penalty has evolved as DNA evidence and other modern forensic science developments have cleared many wrongfully convicted inmates across the country. More than 130 death row inmates nationwide have been exonerated since 1973 — including 12 in Texas — according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A 2010 Gallup News poll found that public approval of the death penalty had dropped from an all-time high of 80 percent in 1994 to 65 percent in 2009.
Perhaps more troubling than the number of executions that have taken place on Governor Perry's watch is this fact: while other governors or officials of other states grant stays of execution or clemency fairly often, Governor Perry has only done so about thirty times--and 28 of those cases involved an order by the U.S. Supreme Court:
HOUSTON - In nearly nine years as Texas governor, Rick Perry has only once delayed an execution and has never spared a life based on a claim of innocence, according to a Chronicle review of public records, clemency statistics and information from the governor's office.
During that same period, officials in other death penalty states granted clemency for humanitarian reasons at least 200 times - 171 based on questions of innocence in Illinois alone.
Texas has executed 200 convicts under Perry's watch, but he has spared just one condemned man's life in a case in which he wasn't compelled to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In that case, the inmate Perry saved in 2007 wasn't a killer, but the admitted driver of a getaway car, condemned alongside the triggerman in a joint trial under Texas' tough "law of parties."
One inmate sent to his death was paranoid schizophrenic Kelsey Patterson; Governor Perry ignored the recommendation of the Texas parole board for clemency, along with appeals by international groups for mercy based on the man's history of mental illness and apparent lack of awareness that he was even going to be executed.
And yet, just when you start thinking the death penalty isn’t such a bad idea after all, another house-fire murder case comes back into view, this one in Texas. Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murder in 1992 after testimony that the house fire that killed his three young daughters (his wife was elsewhere) had been arson. But the conviction was based on junk science claiming evidence of accelerants where none existed. In the years since, nearly a dozen top fire inspectors have ruled out arson. A jailhouse snitch essentially recanted his testimony.
No matter. Willingham, the subject of a New Yorker piece last year, was executed in 2004. Afterward, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now clinging to a lead in the polls over former Houston mayor Bill White, seemingly did everything he could to cover up evidence clearing Willingham. Instead of allowing an investigation to proceed, Perry last year fired members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission who exposed the “evidence” used to convict him. (Perry felt the commission was biased.)
At this point, some might object: sure, it looks now as though Mr. Willingham was innocent--but could Governor Perry have possibly known? The answer is yes: see here:
Two of Texas' highest-profile death penalty recent cases continue to shadow Perry. The case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for an arson that killed his three daughters, has roiled the criminal justice community in Texas and nationwide. Since Willingham's execution, public reports have revealed that Perry’s office was aware that serious scientific questions had been raised about evidence used to convict Willingham. Perry has dismissed the reports of scientists who concluded Willingham was not responsible for the blaze and has called him a guilty “monster.” The Texas Forensic Science Commission continues to investigate the science used in the Willingham case, and the Innocence Project continues its fight to prove that Texas killed an innocent man.
AUSTIN - The Houston Chronicle and Hearst Newspapers LLC are suing Gov. Rick Perry in an effort to force the release of a clemency report Perry received before denying a stay of execution to Cameron Todd Willingham.
The report is a summary and status of the case against Willingham and was given to Perry at 11:30 a.m. on the day of Willingham's execution, in 2004, in the fire deaths of his three daughters. Anti-death penalty advocates say modern fire forensics show that the blaze cannot be proven as arson.
Perry's office has refused to release the report, claiming it is a privileged document. It was used by Perry in the process of deciding whether to give Willingham a 30-day stay of execution. [...]
Willingham was put to death shortly after 6 p.m. on Feb. 17, 2004, just 88 minutes after the governor's office received an expert's report that the fire that killed Willingham's children could not be positively attributed to arson. It is unknown whether the report by Perry's general counsel included any mention of the arson controversy in the Willingham case.