The amount of executions held in Texas during Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) 11 years in office has come under scrutiny in the early stages of his presidential campaign, most notably for the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of murdering his three daughters and put to death despite evidence showing that he was likely innocent of the crimes. But even as the Willingham case receives the most notice, many of Perry’s decisions regarding execution have begun to garner attention.
Texas has held 234 executions on Perry’s watch, more than the next two states combined have executed since the death penalty was restored 35 years ago. While Perry can only grant clemency from death sentences if it is recommended by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, he has rarely used that power. According to the Texas Tribune, Perry has commuted only 31 death sentences, and 28 of those resulted from a 2005 Supreme Court case outlawing the execution of juveniles. Meanwhile, he has allowed a host of controversial executions to go forward, the Tribune reported today:
JUVENILES: According to the Tribune, three people who were juveniles at the time of their crime were executed between 2000, when Perry took office, and 2005, when the Supreme Court banned the execution of juveniles. Before Napoleon Beazley, who committed a murder at 17, was executed, 18 state legislators wrote Perry asking him to grant clemency, and the trial judge who eventually had to sign his execution order asked Perry to commute the sentence to life in prison. Perry’s response: “To delay his punishment is to delay justice.”
MENTALLY DISABLED: Ten executions during Perry’s tenure have involved serious questions about the prisoner’s mental health and stability. One was Kelsey Patterson, who was judged as mentally fit by a doctor known as “Dr. Death” because he rarely found patients mentally unfit for trial. During his trial, Patterson testified about having devices planted in his head by the military, and once in prison, he sent incoherent letters to courts. The Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended to Perry that he grant clemency, but Perry rejected the recommendation. Another was James Clark, whose final statement was, “Howdy.” Two Texas prisoners with mental health concerns have been executed in 2011.
INADEQUATE COUNSEL: Five men executed since 2000 have had major questions about the adequacy of their legal counsel, including Leonard Uresti Rojas. The appellate attorney appointed to Rojas was on probation with the state bar, suffered from mental illness and missed multiple deadlines to file appeals on Rojas’ behalf. New attorneys took Rojas’ case before the Court of Appeals asked Perry to stay the execution but were denied. After the execution, an appeals court judge wrote a dissenting opinion against the court, saying Rojas’ attorney had “neglected his duties.”
In addition, Perry has overseen the executions of seven foreign nationals and two men who were accomplices but did not actually commit murder.
Perry’s statewide opponents have had little success in using Perry’s execution record against him. In her unsuccessful attempt to defeat Perry in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) brought together a focus group to find out if Perry’s death penalty record was a point of vulnerability, only to have one respondent tell her campaign, “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”
But Perry’s criminal justice record is now making its first major news during his presidential campaign. A Texas inmate named Duane Edward Buck, who is set to be executed Sept. 15, has petitioned Perry for clemency from his death sentence. Though Buck’s guilt is not in question, the way the prosecution secured his death sentence is. To prove Buck’s “future dangerousness” and secure the death sentence, prosecutors used the testimony of a psychologist who claimed that Buck was more dangerous simply because he was black.
The case, tried in 1995, was protested by Sen. John Cornyn (R), who was serving as the state’s attorney general at the time. Perry has not yet commented or made a decision regarding Buck’s clemency request. But with his criminal justice record playing a larger role in the narrative around his presidential campaign, and with voters and politicians becoming more conscious of both the social justice and budgetary costs of the increasingly expensive death penalty, it will be interesting to see if the case of Duane Buck becomes one where Perry stands up for justice, or if it will be another blotch on an already spotty record.