Wednesday, June 29, 2011

'Incendiary' Rick Perry, Todd Willingham and the death penalty

The Texas Tribune on July 12 in Austin is hosting a screening of the documentary Incendiary, which focuses on the Todd Willingham case, at the Bob Bullock state history museum. Go here to sign up, and use the code SpecialRate to receive a discount on the ticket price.

That said, I don't think the Willingham story will have nearly the effect on a possible Rick Perry candidacy as do some national pundits. Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic confuses optimism with analysis when predicting that California or Texas may soon abolish the death penalty because, "In the Golden State, it costs too much to execute the guilty -- and in the Lone Star State they've likely killed an innocent." In response to a post at Sentencing Law and Policy, I left this rebuttal in the comments: "Not a prayer Texas does it. Proving an innocent person was executed will not be a silver bullet ending the death penalty, that's abolitionist fantasy. According to the polling I've seen, a majority of people who think the state has already killed an innocent prisoner still support capital punishment."

Another reason it may not matter is Perry's unique strategic approach of pandering to the hard right while  ignoring the media and swing voters. A Perry presidential campaign would seek to win the GOP primary by pressing as hard to the right as possible, then hoping the tide of history washes him ashore at the Whitehouse without ever needing to appeal directly to centrists. Whenever challenged, demagoguery over the death penalty can and will obfuscate the issue enough for GOP voters to blame the controversy on the "liberal media" before moving back to their red-meat issues. In the GOP primary, it's too easy to shrug the issue off because of the volume of death penalty cases in Texas and the fact that no other Republican candidate would have done any different. For that matter, the death penalty is not an issue that particularly contrasts GOP candidates with Obama, who's after all out there initiating targeted assassination campaigns.

In the end, if a Republican wins the next presidential election it will be because of the economy, not any culture war issue like the death penalty. Perhaps I'm wrong - time will tell - but I have a hard time envisioning the Willingham case being raised in a context where it could actually damage a Rick Perry presidential campaign.


Prison Doc said...

I think you have this one nailed, Grits. In Texas the credo seems to be "Better to incarcerate or execute a few innocents than to take a chance on letting the guilty go free."

Hook Em Horns said...

Texas LOVES executions, no question, but what Grits and Prison Doc are not thinking about is this. Perry would be running on the national stage and the media will skewer him. Keeping in mind that the rest of the country really doesn't like us all that well, the Willingham case, if played out in the national press, could be Good-Hair's undoing.

Anon99 said...

Perry has a problem, an oath problem. He took an oath to uphold and defend the constitution and then talked about secession in a positive way. He is not loyal to the United States, perhaps not quite to the level of treason. Red-blooded American patriots should not vote for him because of his disloyalty!

Prison Doc said...

In the final analysis, I don't think a significant number of people really care about Texas' execution policy and practice, or really about criminal justice at all--it won't move a national election. Just barely moves a state election.

Anyone who raises the secession issue looks more stupid than Perry since no one considers that a serious topic.

With the current interest and support surrounding other candidates especially Romney and Bachman, Perry better dive in fast if he is going to jump at all or he will have missed the outgoing tide for 2012.

I for one would not count him out,however. I think is biggest albatross is the Texas/Bush branding...not sure the country will take another Texan right now, although that would be the country's loss.

Hook Em Horns said...

Well said Prison Doc. I figured we were close in thought than it first appeared. I agree that "Texas criminal justice" will not sway a national election but when you combine the national dislike of Texas with your described Bush-branding, then Willingham does not help the dear all.

The national press, who also loathe Texas, will jump all over this.

Ted said...

This is probabably the only time in my life I will say this, but thank God for 43's presidency- I believe the rest of the country is so disgusted with Texas presidents that the Willingham case, while a tragedy to be sure,will play out as just another wrongful execution, but that the guy most likely "did somethin" -the calumny that has been heaped on Bush will, hopefully, wash over any Perry bid for the Republican nod and knock him off early- of course if the Republicans are really as crazy as many people believe, the best way to re elect Obama would be a Perry Palin ticket - can you imagine what Chris Matthews would do with that? Perry does not have a Bob Bullock to hold his hand and keep him from actin a fool, as did 43-I don't have much use for the president we have now, but Perry is an absolute embarassment to the state- all of the baloney about job creation notwithstanding, you don't hear him braggin about the lack of medical coverage for kids and the elderly,or the appalling state of indigent defense- but, I have to say, his latest appointment to CCA seems to be out of the mold for a jurist on that court- thoughtful, and not a knee jerk reactionary

Anonymous said...

But isn't that what happened in that Kevin Spacey movie? So it must be true.

Anonymous said...

As a relative newcomer to Texas and having lived in 8 different states, my opinion of the majority of Texans is at best they could care less about criminal justice issues and at worse, they welcome the death penalty, regret that appeals take so long and would like to incarcerate for long sentences for any or every offense. Parole is a's a star chamber with no oversight. Yes, they supposedly have guidelines but I've yet to see them followed. I hope we don't end up with another Texas president. The ones we've had are a joke.

john said...

Surely the main problem in Kalifornia has long been the LACK of death penalty.
Folks with enough money can overcome any bad press--although the national dumbed-down anti-Texas agenda has become very large.
Death Penalty will always be around. Because cops kill innocents, what's the diff when judges get in on it? But if it gets too expensive, that might hold it back; or only the rich States will have it--and everyone in power knows Texas is a prime leader to be the last rich State. Those in power will always need the Penalty as the final threat of force, when you don't submit. Submission is futile, you know.

Anonymous said...

Have to wonder why you didn't update readers that perry was right after AG opinion.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Patience, anon ... I'm one guy and this blog is a hobby. There's plenty of time to discuss the FSC.

Besides, to say the AG opinion means
"Perry was right" is just a silly provocation. Why would I post something that isn't true?