The numbers are similar; which deserves the applause?
234: The number of executions in Texas since Rick Perry has been governor.
271: The number of convictions reversed, including many capital cases, by DNA evidence since the creation of the Innocence Project.
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 understand justice."
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stemming from the fact that a man was allowed to be executed even though his conviction was based on flawed and outdated science."
The former chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission has now told CNN that Perry and other Texas officials worked to "squash" the Willingham investigation.
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 about.
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.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker and can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.
©2011 Peter Funt. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate. For info call Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or e-mail [email protected]