The response at last night’s Republican debate when Rick Perry was asked about his executions record was shocking and disgusting. One tweet suggested, “The last time the crowd cheered like that for an execution, I believe Pontius Pilate was in charge,” but to be clear, the crowd wasn’t cheering like that for an execution, it was cheering for 234 executions.
As emptywheel points out, though, there was one execution that is particularly relevant: that of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was convicted of setting the fire that killed his three children and subsequently executed:
Not only did Governor Perry deny Willingham’s appeal for clemency even though an expert arson investigator had rebutted all the solid evidence in the case, Perry fired investigators who were about to provide Willingham’s innocence.
The fact that Perry had an innocent man executed, despite the existence of evidence that he had not killed his children, and then covered it up, appears not to be a problem for him among Texas Republicans:
Veterans of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s unsuccessful 2010 primary challenge to Perry recalled being stunned at the way attacks bounced off the governor in a strongly conservative state gripped by tea party fever. Multiple former Hutchison advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man – Cameron Todd Willingham – and got this response from a primary voter: “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”
It may not be a problem for him in a national Republican primary, either—and certainly it’s hard to imagine which of his competitors would try to make it an election issue. But it should be an issue, and in a general election it might be. And as emptywheel points out, Brian Williams should have asked about it. Williams did ask a follow-up question in the death penalty segment. But though his initial question was “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?” and Perry’s response was that he didn’t struggle because due process in Texas would prevent execution of the innocent, the follow-up was not about Willingham, the clear example that yes, at least one innocent man has been executed in Texas under Perry.