Texas’s record as death penalty capital: a help for Rick Perry?

Gov. Rick Perry, a top-tier GOP presidential candidate, has public opinion on his side on the death penalty. With another execution set for Thursday night in Texas, the danger may be if moderate voters perceive him to be cavalier about taking human life.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted September 15, 2011 at 8:34 pm EDT

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has presided over more executions than any governor in US history, at 235 … and counting. With convicted murderer Duane Buck scheduled to die in Texas by lethal injection Thursday night, pending last-minute appeals to the governor and the US Supreme Court, a legitimate question is whether that record on capital punishment will help or hurt Mr. Perry in his quest for the GOP presidential nomination.

Among conservative Republicans, Perry’s status as top executioner is something to be applauded. During Monday’s GOP presidential debate, audience members cheered when Perry said he has “never struggled” with any of the executions he has presided over in his 11 years in office. “In the state of Texas,” he said, “if you come into our state and you kill one of our children … you will face the ultimate justice.”

It’s not the number of executions, per se, that is a potential liability for his candidacy, say some analysts, but rather whether Perry’s faith in the state’s justice system is justified. In the Buck case, for instance, the condemned man’s lawyers say irregularities during sentencing, allegedly involving racially charged testimony, warrant a reconsideration of the death sentence.

Perry “tends to emphasize the fact of conviction and present the other questions as technicalities,” says James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Such resolve plays well among Texans, who overwhelmingly support capital punishment. Moreover, voter concern about jobs and the economy vastly overshadows the matter of Perry’s death penalty record.

“There’s too much else going on right now,” Mr. Henson says. “In this environment, with the economy where it is, I’d be surprised if a lot of voters make a decision based on the death penalty.”

Capital punishment may matter more to moderate Republicans and independent voters in swing states. They may frame Perry’s record on executions as a character test, says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

“Even people who favor capital punishment want to see each execution taken very seriously, and that includes libertarians who believe the ultimate violation of liberty is taking a life…. If someone is perceived as cavalier with human life, that will be a consideration,” says Mr. Sabato.

The Buck case is one of six that former Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, now a US senator, says need to be reopened because of racially charged statements made during sentencing hearings. Mr. Buck’s guilt is not in question – he was convicted in 1997 of killing two people – but his sentencing is under scrutiny because of a psychologist’s testimony to jurors that black criminals are more likely to be repeatedly violent.

Buck’s attorneys are asking Perry to issue a 30-day reprieve so the matter can be further reviewed, and they are appealing to the US Supreme Court to intervene. At time of writing, neither the governor’s office nor the high court had issued a response.

Because Perry is out of the state, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is set to preside over Buck’s execution. Buck would be the second death-row inmate to die this week in Texas and the 11th this year.

Perry’s critics cite the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 by lethal injection after being convicted of an arson that killed his three daughters. A leading fire scientist discounted the arson finding and suggested the fire could have been an accident, but Perry was not moved by his report to halt the execution. The case attracted national attention after a Chicago Tribune investigation highlighted a panel of experts who all agreed that the arson finding was wrongly applied.

What Perry has on his side is public opinion. Sixty-four percent of American adults favor the death penalty in cases of murder, compared with 29 percent who oppose it, according to a Gallup poll in October 2010, the last time the organization polled on the issue.

Perry is not likely to adjust his views on capital punishment, says Henson. “So far, it’s been more about modulation than moderation. I don’t think he’s moving to the center. Their strategy is, as much as possible, to run Perry as Perry,” he says.

If Perry were to win the GOP nomination, his hardliner approach on capital punishment is likely to join “a family of issues,” including creationism and global warming, that may “be lumped together as a combined source of vulnerability” for his campaign, says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, at Austin.

“The swagger is appealing for people on the Republican side, but off-putting for people in the middle,” Mr. Buchanan says.

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