Texas executed 279 people on Rick Perry's watch

Governor leaves office after overseeing deaths of nearly 300 inmates

Published January 20, 2015 5:23PM (EST)

Rick Perry                          (AP/Kathy Willens)
Rick Perry (AP/Kathy Willens)

Capital punishment may be cruel, but in Rick Perry's Texas, it was far from unusual.

During his 14 years as governor, Perry presided over the executions of a record 279 inmates, according to figures compiled by the state's Department of Criminal Justice. Perry, who handed over the reins of power to fellow Republican Greg Abbott today, has touted his support for the death penalty as evidence of his toughness on crime, but his execution record also tells a far less flattering story.

Opponents of the death penalty have zeroed in on two key factors in campaigning for its abolition: the growing number of death row inmates who have later been proven innocent, and deeply embedded racial biases in the meting out of death sentences. Texas is an illustrative case.

Take the question of innocence. Since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 150 death row inmates have been exonerated and, with one exception, subsequently released from prison. (One inmate died of cancer before he was cleared.) Since Perry became governor in December 2000, five of those exonerations have occurred in his state.

You can't quite call those five former inmates "lucky," given that they spent years behind bars serving time for crimes they didn't commit. But they had better fortune than Cameron Todd Willingham, whom the state of Texas put to death in 2004. Willingham was executed for the 1991 deaths of his three young daughters in a house fire prosecutors charged Willingham had set himself. Later investigations demonstrated that the charges were based on shoddy forensic work. Shortly before Willingham's execution, the renowned arson expert Gerald Hurst sent Perry and the Texas Board of Pardon and Parole an analysis demonstrating that Willingham could not have set the fire that killed his daughters, but a defiant Perry signed Willingham's death warrant anyway. Subsequent investigations have only cast further doubt on the case against Willingham.

But Perry hasn't lost any sleep over the matter. Asked by Brian Williams whether he ever worried that someone innocent had been executed, Perry said in a 2011 presidential primary debate, "No, sir. I've never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which -- when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that's required."

"But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed," Perry continued.

Of course, certain individuals are more likely to be executed than others. African Americans account for a disproportionate share of those executed on Perry's watch; while blacks make up just 11.6 percent of Texas' population, they represented 40 percent of those put to death during Perry's tenure. Whites (44.4 percent of the population) accounted for another 40 percent of executions, while Latinos (38.2 percent of the population) accounted for the remaining 20 percent.

Conservatives may argue that the overrepresentation of African Americans on death row isn't an overrepresentation at all -- that the figures simply reflect who commits crimes, and that's that. This notion may be comforting to those who would rather not confront the problems of systemic racism that continue to plague our criminal justice system, but it has no basis in reality: As with other states, Texas is substantially more likely to seek the death penalty against a black person convicted of killing a white person than against those convicted of killing a black person.

Should Perry proceed with plans to launch a second White House bid in 2016, he will do so amid a renewed national focus on overzealousness and racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Although he shows no signs of having thought much about such problems, his state has often been Ground Zero for them.

By Luke Brinker

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