Monday, October 31, 2011

New York Times takes on Perry's mixed criminal justice record

The New York Times published a feature today by Deborah Sontag on Gov. Rick Perry's Texas criminal justice record, mostly focused on the death penalty but with a handful of comments, including from your correspondent, suggesting that the exclusive focus on capital punishment risks ignoring more moderate aspects of the Governor's record:
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.

“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.”
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:
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.”

“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.”
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.

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:


William L. Anderson said...

The problem is that most mainstream reporters are incapable of thinking outside a very narrow narrative. The capability is not there, period.

Don't forget the mainstream media and especially the NYT during the Duke Lacrosse Case. The Times wanted us to believe that three young men could rape, beat, and ejaculate on a woman for 30 minutes, yet not leave a mark on her and not even one tiny trace of DNA. Nothing.

This kind of evidence would have had the Innocence Project jumping up and down, but Peter Neufeld told the paper that absence of DNA really meant nothing, and the NYT ate it up.

In other words, Progressives were so enamored with their narrative that they could not even comprehend that the very science that they champion in forensics cases was screaming that the story was not true. When journalists ignore evidence that is right in front of them, don't expect them to understand anything even remotely complex. The Progressive media is used to very simple narratives and nothing else.

dfisher said...

Where some see Gov. Perry as some what of a moderate on criminal justice issues, I do not. It is true Perry has signed legislation on many criminal justice issues, but he then undermined every billed signed thru his appointments to the oversight boards and commissions. For instance, all toxicology labs must be accredited by the DPS Director and, or by a national accrediting organization approved by the director. The Dallas Co. Toxicology Lab is accredited both by the DPS Director and ASCLD, yet the lab hasn't issued a verified toxicology report in a murder case since at least 1995. Likewise, all Texas Medical Examiner Offices have failed, or in one case, refused to execute the constitutionally required anti-bribery statement and oath of office, and yet the DPS Director has started accrediting these unconstitutional forensic offices. Now it is true, a month ago a Harris Co. Judge did rule the medical examiner is a county employee, but the Judge did not know that ruling violated the TX Medical Practice Act & the Occupation Code. (TX Corporate Practice of Medicine) A new Motion filed in the 179th District Court is set for a hearing on Nov. 19, 2011. This Motion addresses both the Constitutional & Corporate Practice of Medicine issues, and should lead to a ruling that voids the all Harris Co. Autopsy & Forensic Reports. (Case#1273042) A similar Motion was heard in El Paso last week, wherein the District Attorney acknowledged the former medical examiner was neither appointed, nor did he execute the the constitutionally required Statement of Officer and Oath of office. (TX Constitution, Art. XVI) The Judge is set to rule on the Motion any day now. On Nov. 1, 2010 Wichita Co. disbanded their 30-year-old medical examiner office and went back to the JP system, when confronted with the fact that they never established the medical examiner's office, appointed a medical examiner, or complied with art. XVI. Wichita Co. had a contract with a Dr. to sign autopsy reports using the title of medical examiner. This dr. never performed an autopsy, or declared a death, he was simply was paid $21.50 for every death certificate he signed. So much for the perfect over-site of our accreditation and appellate court system that Perry crowed about in the first debate.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

David, it's been said that democracy is the worst governing system in the world except for all the others. Similarly, Rick Perry is easily the worst governor Texas has ever had on crimjust issues, except for all the others. His predecessors set an exceptionally low bar.

William, not sure how you got from this post to Neufeld and Nifong, but I would suggest that anyone who's ever watched Fox News knows it's not just "progressives" who crave "simple narratives." Neufeld was right that the absence of DNA proves little and that situation has never led to an exoneration - it's when DNA exists and it doesn't match the suspect that it's exculpatory.

dfisher said...


If a State, when prosecuting criminal offenses, does not comply with its on statutes and constitution, then neither a democracy or republic exist.