Rick Perry's Nixon moment: Why tonight's looming execution is a test of his humanity (UPDATE)

In Texas, a schizophrenic death row inmate is scheduled to die at 6 p.m. Here's what we'll learn about Perry

By Heather Digby Parton


Published December 3, 2014 4:46PM (EST)

Rick Perry                           (Reuters/Mike Segar)
Rick Perry (Reuters/Mike Segar)

Perhaps the ugliest moment in former President Bill Clinton's career was his decision to race back to Arkansas in the middle of the 1992 campaign to oversee the execution of a mentally disabled man named Ricky Ray Rector.  It was a perfect example of fighting the last war in which it had become conventional wisdom that Michael Dukakis had blown his chances at the presidency largely because of his position on the death penalty.  His answer to moderator Bernard Shaw's question of whether he would support the death penalty should his wife be raped and murdered was, "No, I don't, Bernard, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime." Journalist Roger Simon recounted the incident in 2007 and described the reaction among the reporters at the debate:

In the press room, the murmurs over Shaw's question now turned to mutters over Dukakis' answer. "He's through." "That's all she wrote." "Get the hook!"

The CW at the time was that the answer was seen as professorial and, most important, lacking in the emotion we evidently require in a president. He should have rent his garments and howled in anger at the mere idea of such a terrible circumstance. But the lesson the Democrats took from that incident was that no candidate for president could be elected if he or she were against the death penalty as a matter of principle. (This was one of many opportunistic capitulations on alleged principles to come -- welfare and gun control being just two examples.)

John Kerry and Barack Obama had to dance on the head of a pin to reconcile their previous stances against capital punishment but they managed. Kerry insisted he was for it when it came to terrorists (and reminded everyone constantly that he had personally killed people in Vietnam) while Obama said he supports it in "the most heinous cases," the same language Al Gore used. Hillary Clinton is for it, period.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have gotten so bloodthirsty that the governors who are lucky enough to personally sign death warrants take great pride in the numbers on their kill lists. Perhaps the most notorious of these was George W. Bush who, as Texas governor, could brag about having overseen the executions of hundreds on his watch. His attitude about it even shocked some conservatives like Tucker Carlson who noted Bush's puerile attitude in a profile for the now defunct Talk Magazine:

In the week before [Karla Faye Tucker's] execution, Bush says, Bianca Jagger and a number of other protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Tucker. "Did you meet with any of them?" I ask.

Bush whips around and stares at me. "No, I didn't meet with any of them," he snaps, as though I've just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. "I didn't meet with Larry King either when he came down for it. I watched his interview with [Tucker], though. He asked her real difficult questions, like 'What would you say to Governor Bush?'

"What was her answer?" I wonder.

"Please," Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "don't kill me."

She said no such thing, of course. As Tim Noah noted in this piece in Slate some years later, that report seemed to disappear as if the Villagers all decided it was "just too ugly to repeat."  But that didn't change the GOP's enthusiastic support for capital punishment.  Not content to simply support its use, candidate John McCain made a fetish out of saying he wanted to expand the use of the death penalty to more crimes. And Mitt Romney was such a believer that he wanted to reinstate it in Massachusetts when he was governor even though it had been declared unconstitutional years before.

Considering all that, what do you suppose we can expect from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the man who recently went to Europe and put all "foreigners" on notice that they'd better do what Uncle Sam says or else? As someone who has personally signed off on killing 234 people, his enthusiasm for the death penalty is unparalleled. (That's literally true, he's signed more death warrants than anyone in American history.)  He vetoed a bill to spare the mentally retarded and is all for killing juvenile offenders, which is a position  that's not even held by the conservative Roberts court. He's the most likely governor to have knowingly executed an innocent man.

So what are the odds he's going to grant clemency to a schizophrenic death row inmate who is scheduled to die at 6 p.m. tonight? Luke Brinker recapped the story yesterday, here.  It concerns a 56-year-old, severely mentally ill man who murdered his wife's parents in 1992 on instructions from Satan. He represented himself at trial, calling the pope and John F. Kennedy as witnesses. The state of Texas believes he has been faking his illness, which means he must have been planning this murder since 1978, which, according to the New York Times, was when he was first diagnosed with schizophrenia:

According to his lawyers, Mr. Panetti first received a diagnosis of a psychotic disorder in 1978, 14 years before killing his in-laws. He was hospitalized 13 times from 1978 to 1991, and in 1986 expressed “fears that the devil is after him,” according to a timeline by his lawyers.

His condition deteriorated further in the early 1990s, according to legal documents, when he failed to take prescribed antipsychotic medication and discontinued treatment at a Kerrville hospital. At one point, he brandished a cavalry sword, called himself “Sgt. Iron Horse” and asserted that residents of Fredericksburg, where he lived, were plotting against him.

There has been a big outcry in Texas and elsewhere about this pending execution. As with Karla Faye Tucker, who garnered a lot of support in the evangelical community, even some conservatives are repelled by the idea of executing a man with such profound mental illness. Unfortunately, Rick Perry and his successor Greg Abbott, the current attorney general, are the least likely people in the nation to accede to such appeals. Indeed, one can easily imagine both of them making similar remarks to those made by George W. Bush when he forgot himself with Tucker Carlson back in 2000.

Still, you never know. Things have changed on the death penalty front since 1988. DNA testing has exonerated 20 death row prisoners since then and hundreds more people convicted of lesser crimes, which has shaken the assurance that our vaunted system of justice doesn't kill innocent people.  A majority of the public still supports the death penalty but the numbers are far below the highs of 80 percent in the mid-'90s. Several states have either declared a moratorium on executions or banned the death penalty in the last decade. The consensus has broken down. So perhaps 2014 could be a year in which a Republican presidential candidate with impeccable killing credentials takes a counterintuitive stand and gives clemency in a case where nobody expects him to.

This could be Rick Perry's "Nixon goes to China" moment, his "Sistah Souljah," if you will. Will he take the opportunity to go up against his constituency and show he's a decent human being or will he sign his 235th death warrant with a flourish? I'd hate to be on the side of a bet that he will do it, but it would certainly make people give him a second look. Let's hope he's smart enough to see that doing the right thing is also the smart thing. Maybe if a Republican takes the lead the Democrats might even find their principles again.

Update, 11:47 a.m. Wednesday: The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of execution. The stay is only issued “pending further order of the court,” which is expected to set a schedule for consideration of Panetti’s appeal.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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