Scott Henson, author of “Grits for Breakfast,” a well-read blog on Texas justice, said that Mr. Perry, believing that “only egg-headed liberals” oppose the death penalty, liked to bait the news media so he would be given a chance to show some swagger.Grits has argued an admittedly counterintuitive position articulated best in the story by my colleague Jeff Blackburn from the Innocence Project of Texas. He told Sontag that the politics of capital punishment make it a special case but that, by comparison, the rest of Perry's criminal justice record is admirably moderate:
“And y’all take the bait,” Mr. Henson said, “even though Rick Perry has nothing to do with executions. All his bluster about the death penalty is like the rooster who crows taking credit for the sun rising.”
Death sentences and average yearly executions have declined during [Perry's] tenure compared with that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. And persistent efforts to fix Texas’s troubled justice system have finally borne some fruit. Mr. Perry has not been a crusader, but he has signed reform-minded legislation and acknowledged some of the system’s mistakes, once referring to an exonerated prisoner’s murder conviction as a “great miscarriage of justice.”Certainly on any issue remotely related to the death penalty Gov. Perry may be counted on to give voice to the most extremist, regressive and aggressive positions possible, blatantly pandering to what Blackburn called the "state's religion." The on-the-ground reality, though, looks much different. Sontag notes that, during Perry's tenure, the number of new death sentences in Texas steadily declined from 33 in his first year in office to seven last year, at least in part because of legislation Perry signed into law improving capital defense standards and creating a life without parole option for juries. Meanwhile, Texas passed a slew of criminal justice reform measures unrelated to the death penalty on Perry's watch. And after the Tulia scandal, on the advice of his "fixer," Jay Kimbrough, Perry boldly de-funded the state's system of regional narcotics task forces to pay for drug courts, diversion programs and border-security initiatives.
“He has done more good than any other governor we’ve ever had,” said Jeff L. Blackburn, chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas. “He approaches criminal justice issues like a lay person rather than like a prosecutor or judge, which makes him open-minded and willing to embarrass the system. Unless, of course, it involves the death penalty.
“On the death penalty, Rick Perry has a profound mental block,” Mr. Blackburn continued. “The death penalty is part of our fine state’s religion; it’s somewhere up there with football. To oppose or weaken it would be like playing with dynamite, and Rick Perry, a quintessentially political person, is not going to blow himself up.”
In the scheme of things, the death penalty is a minor piece of the justice system. It's worth remembering that, while seven new people were sent to death row last year, at any given moment around 750,000 adults in Texas are in prison, jail, on probation or on parole. Capital punishment may be important to many from an ideological perspective, but too often myopic focus on the death penalty by activists and the media drown out debates over issues surrounding the other 3/4 million people supervised by the Texas justice system.
Governor Perry is no reformer and his views on the justice system certainly don't reflect my own. But neither does the caricature of Rick Perry as an execution-crazed, tuff-on-crime Yosemite Sam figure stand up to close scrutiny. The Times article shows the national media is struggling to make sense of the disconnect.
See related recent Grits posts:
- Perry signed bill vetoed by Gov. Moonbeam banning shackling of inmates giving birth
- Rick Perry has little role in 'ultimate justice