Rick Perry's Execution Obsession Feeds the Worst in Human Nature
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When Rick Perry threw his hat into the ring for the Republican presidential nomination, it set off such a collective cringe among liberal Texans that it likely scored on the Richter scale. Being a native Texan with basic respect for modern civilisation means living in a constant state of low-grade humiliation, as the state's size provides an uninterrupted stream of news stories highlighting the cranks and Bible-thumpers who win state and local offices – but a presidential campaign means exponentially expanding the amount of national and international attention paid to the streak of mean-spirited ignorance that rules Texas politics. With Rick Perry, this means a whole lot more coverage of the fact that Texas is the "killingest" state in the entire union, having executed more than four times as many prisoners as the next contender in this gruesome contest.
Of course, we of the non-barbaric sort do hope that all this attention paid to Rick Perry's willingness to execute anyone on death row – no matter how obviously screwed over by an imperfect and often unjust judicial system – could somehow provoke enough national shame that we actually do away with the death penalty. Which we really need to do, not because we have any great love for vicious murderers, but because the death penalty is a known destroyer of a fair and sober-minded justice system.
Once you have the right to kill people, the voters start expecting semi-regular bloodshed as proof that you're doing your job, creating incentives for prosecutors and politicians to cut corners to get those voter-pleasing cadaver numbers up. Each new generation of prosecutors and politicians feels pressure to "best" their predecessor in the number of executions carried out, lest they face accusations of being soft on crime. Which explains why they soon find themselves where Rick Perry stands, having executed 234 people, many of whom had highly corrupt trials and at least one of whom is most likely innocent.
For those who haven't read the tale of Cameron Todd Willingham, I implore you to read the New Yorker article recounting the case of a man executed for killing his three children based on shoddy evidence and prosecutorial willingness to introduce Willingham's love of Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin as evidence in order to stoke the prejudices of a Bible Belt jury that was high on fundamentalist tall tales about the Satanic influence of rock music. When presented with an opportunity to spare Willingham's life, Perry declined, and in 2004, Willingham was executed by lethal injection. His case has come to symbolise the circus atmosphere around capital murder cases, and the way that the eagerness to see someone pay the ultimate price for the loss of innocent human life causes law enforcement and politicians to make a mockery out of the idea of justice.
Since Rick Perry, by his own admission, has never lost sleep over the execution of a likely innocent man, you can bet justice doesn't stand a chance when it comes to cases where the fact of homicide is indisputable. The public's desire to get blood for blood – especially if they can view the accused as an outsider – turns concerns about due process to dust for anyone whose job depends on a high conviction rate. Subsequently, death penalty cases where the prosecution won a clean conviction without relying on shoddy evidence or a jury's unfair prejudices are the rare gems in a sea of corruption. The case of Duane Buck, scheduled to be executed this week, demonstrates how the death penalty is more about hustling prisoners to the execution chamber to score points with the public than it is securing just and safe outcomes.
Even hyper-conservative Senator John Cornyn, once Texas's attorney general, wanted Buck's case reviewed, due to a prosecutorial witness's claim that Buck was more likely to be violent in the future because he's black. That someone's race was overtly invoked as a reason to kill him during trial should be indicator enough that the death penalty has meaning for the public beyond alleviating concerns about violent crime. But evidence of racism invoked during the trial probably won't bother Perry: if he had a conscience about signing off on overtly unfair executions, it probably stopped bothering him somewhere much earlier in his run of 234 executions as Texas governor.
The death penalty is wrong not because murderers deserve better, but because the death penalty appeals to the worst instincts of humanity. We see innocent people die, and our lizard brains want to believe that it won't be right until someone pays for blood with blood. That desire starts to overrule all other priorities. Our desire for a fair trial system and our desire to treat people equally despite racial differences are the first to go. But given enough time, we're even willing to send a man to the death chambers for what appears to have been an accident. Three small children are dead, and we want someone to pay, no matter the innocence of the someone we select.
Perry's willingness to execute a man who was almost certainly innocent comes uncomfortably close to regressing to the days of human sacrifice. Sacrificing an innocent man won't prevent other houses from accidentally catching fire and killing the innocent people inside, but it's clear that Perry will not hesitate to pander to voters who cling to hopes that periodic blood-letting will somehow save us all.