Losing Sleep At Night: Rick Perry, the Death Penalty, and Justice In the US

Here’s another guest blog post from the always insightful and heartful s.e. smith; today the focus is on the death penalty and Rick Perry’s problematic framing of the issue.

Rick Perry and Ron Paul at a GOP debateA moment of fireworks occurred during the GOP debate this week when the moderator asked Texas Governor Rick Perry if he ‘struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of [the 234 Texas inmates executed in modern times] might have been innocent?’ Before the moderator could even finish the question, the bloodthirsty crowd broke out in applause, raising eyebrows among many observers. The section of transcript describing the interrupted question and subsequent applause has been widely circulated.

What hasn’t been as widely discussed was Perry’s answer,which was honestly more chilling than the applause: ‘No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all.’ He went on to say that he had absolute faith in the legal system in Texas, and was confident that when people commit ‘heinous crimes’ in Texas, they should face ‘ultimate justice.’ When the moderator asked about the applause, Perry said:

I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of — of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens — and it’s a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens. And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice.

That claim about a ‘vast majority’ might be true among Perry’s evangelical colleagues, and in Texas, where support remains high, but in fact, one third of people in the US overall do not support the death penalty,according to a 2009 Gallup poll. Support numbers for the death penalty have fluxed considerably over the last century, with very low numbers in the middle of the century, particularly during the period when it was briefly outlawed in the United States, and they’ve certainly dropped from the all time high in 1994.

Rick Perry’s faith in the Texas justice system is probably misplaced. The Texas Innocence Project documents that the state has been home to more DNA-based exonerations than any other US state. The state is also reluctant to investigate suspected cases of wrongful execution. Surely, if the justice system in Texas is so fair and effective, is something officials can feel confident with, investigations would only demonstrate the state’s righteousness, right?

This topic is in the news just weeks before the execution date set for Troy Davis, a man in Georgia convicted of killing a police officer in 1991. Despite the fact that the case against him has fallen apart, with witnesses right and left recanting their testimony or offering conflicted versions of their stories, the state intends to move forward with killing him on 21 September. Advocates who have been working on the case for years are attempting to put a stop to the execution, but the clock is ticking, and things do not look good.

The United States is one of the roughly 25% of nations that actively uses the death penalty. Evidence shows that our administration of capital punishment is severely flawed. Whether people believe in capital punishment as a concept or not, as administered in the United States it is clearly an injustice. The deep flaws in the justice system make it extremely difficult to provide fair trials. It is interesting to the see the US, which claims to be a defender of freedom, joining many of the nations it condemns on the international stage when it comes to state-sponsored murder.

This election is not going to hinge on the death penalty; it’s likely to come up as a side issue, at best, and this rare outburst of discussion will probably peter out. This is unfortunate, because the subject should be revisited in the United States. Evidence suggests that many polls indicating high levels of support for the death penalty may actually be skewed by the framing of the questions. When life without possibility of parole is presented as an option, support drops radically, illustrating that the US may not be as hungry for vengeance as people suggest. It seems we understand justice after all, and believe that retributive murder is not justice when we’re presented with viable alternatives.

My small town is in a state of chaos at the moment, with two murders and a manhunt for the suspect underway, so this issue is striking particularly close to home for me. The district attorney says he’s not sure whether he wants to seek death in the case, and I wonder why this is still an option in the United States, supposed paragon of freedom and justice for all. I think of the new addition to Everett’s family, and what it would be like to grow up in a world where the death penalty is unilaterally banned in the United States.

s.e. smith is a writer, editor, and agitator based in Northern California.

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Categories: ponderings


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2 Comments on “Losing Sleep At Night: Rick Perry, the Death Penalty, and Justice In the US”

  1. September 10, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    Thank you for posting. I like the way you put the issue into perspective using polls and our stand for freedom, etc. With regard to people choosing against capital punishment when life in prison is an option, I think (naivete or something) that more people than not really don’t like murder in any sort of the word, nor do they like humans playing god.
    “The United States is one of the roughly 25% of nations that actively uses the death penalty.” What percentage don’t call it the death penalty and use measures worse than death such as torture or the militia with no trial? I know that 75% of nations are not peace-loving and peace-practicing. While we do not fit in that category either, there are far more than 25% of nations committing heinous acts on their citizens. Thank goodness for the groups fighting against such acts and actors. And thank you for putting it out there for us to not forget.

  2. evmaroon
    September 12, 2011 at 7:13 am #

    After the disingenuousness of Perry’s misinformation is analyzed, I have to wonder, once again, why we’re in a political environment that is so focused on anger and death. In the midst of this economy, these expensive wars, this legislative dysfunction, why is it so presumably popular to scapegoat one group after another, instead of dealing with our own failures and weaknesses as a country? Thank you, s.e., for spending time on this symptomatic moment.

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