Debra J. Saunders
As Texas governor, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry has presided over 234 executions. It's a record number, which, The Washington Post reported last week, bestows on Perry "a law-and-order credential that none of his competitors can match -- even if they wanted to."

Watch how pundits will try to turn that statistic into a political negative -- and paint Perry as the governor with blood on his spurs -- even though American voters overwhelmingly support the death penalty.

The temptation to tout Texas' status as the state with the most executions will prove too seductive. It won't matter that, as the Post story points out, Perry has overseen more executions than any other governor in modern history because his state is the second-largest in the country and he has served as governor of that state for nearly 11 years or that the late Democratic Gov. Ann Richards oversaw 50 executions during her one term -- and unlike Perry, she never commuted a death sentence.

The irony here, points out Kent Scheidegger of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif., is that Texas does not deserve its reputation as the most execution-prone state. Scheidegger crunched federal data from 1977 to 2009 and found that among the nation's 34 states with capital punishment, Texas falls below the mean of 16.5 death penalty sentences per 1,000 murders. Delaware and Oklahoma have higher rates when it comes to executions.

Of course, the other big factor is that Texas is not California. Hence, its sentences are not crushed under the heel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. There is no federal judge in the Lone Star State who -- fearful, lest a convicted murderer be put at risk of feeling any pain during lethal injection -- issued an order that effectively stayed all state executions since February 2006, as happened in California.

In Texas, a governor actually can carry out the law.

So, how do pundits turn that into a negative? Death penalty opponents suggest that Perry presided over the execution of an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, in 2004, after Willingham was wrongfully convicted for the 1991 deaths of his three daughters, 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron.

Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York, has argued that an innocent man was executed. Investigators' finding of arson was seriously flawed. A number of journalists agree.

(Over time, I'll be examining the case -- as this controversy will not go away. On the one hand, I've seen journalists who so want to believe that mean-spirited law enforcement officials prosecuted an innocent man that they've willfully ignored overwhelming evidence of guilt. As Scheidegger noted, the Willingham case "has been the subject of a lot of selective reporting." On the other hand, though Perry is right to point out that a jury convicted Willingham and appellate courts upheld the verdict, his 2009 decision to dismiss the chairman of a state forensic panel that was supposed to review the Willingham case works against him. The San Antonio Express-News editorialized that Perry's political maneuvers to thwart a review were "unconscionable.")

On the compassionate conservative side, Perry has commuted three death sentences to life in prison. In 2007, on the advice of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, Perry granted a reprieve to stop the lethal injection of Kenneth Foster because Foster drove the getaway car but was not the shooter in a 1996 robbery/homicide. Perry also signed the bill that created life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty.

I think the death penalty could be a much bigger problem for President Barack Obama as he seeks re-election. Obama says that he supports the death penalty, but his administration opposed Texas' scheduled execution of Humberto Leal -- who was convicted in the 1994 murder/rape of a 16-year-old -- because Leal, a Mexican national raised in San Antonio, had not been advised that he was entitled to consult with the Mexican Consulate. Perry would not oblige, and Leal was executed.

Also, under the Obama administration this year, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized the lethal injection drug sodium thiopental from Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee on the grounds that the Food and Drug Administration has not approved drugs intended to execute convicted killers.

Yes, folks, those are your tax dollars at work in the Obama administration -- funding federal law enforcement raids designed to undermine state laws.

It doesn't matter that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld lethal injection by a 7-2 margin in a 2008 ruling. If there is one way Democrats know how to use the federal government successfully, it is to sabotage state laws they don't like.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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