Human Rights

Did Gov. Rick Perry's Record of Executing Potentially Innocent People Hurt or Help Him in Texas?

Perry crushed his primary challengers this week and also signed off on the 211th execution of his gubernatorial career, breaking all TX history records.

Rick Perry must be feeling pretty good right now.

The Republican Texas governor comfortably beat primary challenger Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison this week in a re-election contest many had predicted would be uncomfortably close, by outflanking her to the right and blaming Washington for the ills of the world.

Also this week, Perry signed off on the 211th execution of his gubernatorial career -- an unprecedented record (George W. Bush didn't come close) and one the death penalty enthusiast must surely be proud of.

At the same time, Perry is being lauded for another red-letter criminal justice achievement this week: the first posthumous pardoning of an innocent prisoner in the state of Texas.

Timothy Cole was serving a 25-year sentence for a rape he did not commit when he died of an asthma attack in December 1999. DNA evidence would later exonerate him, thanks in part to his family, who had been fighting to clear his name since he was wrongfully convicted in 1985.

"To say that the wheels of justice turn slowly would be an understatement," Cole's brother said when it was reported that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had recommended Perry grant the pardon.

"The question is: How many more Tim Coles are out there?"

That is a question Perry is unlikely to lose any sleep over.

Last year, in the midst of a major controversy surrounding a new investigation into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for setting fire to his house and killing his children, Perry appeared completely uninterested -- despite the growing evidence that Willingham was innocent of the crime.

Perry's disinterest didn't last. When the state's Forensic Science Commission began gearing up for a hearing on the Willingham case last October, Perry shocked people by removing not one, not two, but three members of the commission, including its chairman, an Austin defense attorney, who he replaced with a famously "tough-on-crime" DA. When critics accused Perry of trying to cover up the execution of an innocent man on his watch, he responded by calling Willingham a "monster."

Despite widespread speculation that Perry was in political trouble because of the brewing scandal -- Hutchison, a death penalty supporter, seized on the Willingham case, saying it would give "liberals" ammunition with which to discredit capital punishment -- five months later, Perry seems to have emerged unscathed. His defeat of Hutchison was described as a landslide victory, with many speculating that he might make a good presidential contender in 2012.

As an added bonus, with his nomination for a third secure, Perry got to play the role of benevolent justice seeker, releasing the following statement about Timothy Cole’s pardon this week.

"I have been looking forward to the day I could tell Tim Cole’s mother that her son's name has been cleared for a crime he did not commit,” he said in a press release.

“The State of Texas cannot give back the time he spent in prison away from his loved ones, but today I was finally able to tell her we have cleared his name, and hope this brings a measure of peace to his family."

Perry's words would mean a lot more if he had ever shown an ounce of concern for other innocent prisoners behind bars, or worse, on death row. The number of potentially innocent prisoners who have been sent to the death chamber in the years he has been governor is unknown, but chilling nonetheless. Just last fall, he signed off on multiple executions where the prisoners' guilt was in doubt, including Reginald Blanton, who was executed in late October. In November, Perry overrode a rare clemency recommendation to execute Robert Lee Thompson who, despite being involved in the violent crime that led to a murder, did not commit the murder itself.

Last month, Charles Dean Hood, a man who was sentenced to death by a judge who was having an affair with the prosecutor, won a new sentencing hearing from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. (Not because of the affair, but on a separate issue.) If it were up to Perry, Hood would most likely still face the death chamber.

Now, Perry is poised to oversee another execution of a man who could very well be innocent: that of Hank Skinner, who was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering his live-in girlfriend and her two sons.

Like so many cases in Texas, Skinner’s conviction has been shown to be full of holes, and in the years that have passed, evidence has come out that has cast doubt on his guilt. His state-appointed trial attorney was not only incompetent, he was a former district attorney who, according to the Texas Tribune, "had previously prosecuted him for theft and assault." The prosecution's star witnesses at trial, an ex-girlfriend of Skinner's, later recanted portions of her testimony, saying she had been intimidated by police. The Innocence Project at Northwestern University has taken the case on; according to director David Protess, "In more than twenty years of investigating and researching possible wrongful convictions, I have rarely seen a case this circumstantial and shaky in which the prisoner was actually guilty.”

Skinner has come very close to the death chamber; he was scheduled to die on February 24, but received a stay of execution just over a week before. Now advocates on his behalf, including Amnesty International, are stepping up a campaign to get DNA testing in his case that could prove his innocence once and for all.

Unlike most prisoners on death row, who have no DNA evidence at their disposal, Skinner could potentially be saved by a number of forensic items that have never been tested, including the rape kit. (Skinner's girlfriend was sexually assaulted.) But the state of Texas has gone to great lengths to block testing of this evidence. ("It's already been handled," says Gray County District Attorney Lynn Switzer.)

“It’s already been handled” is likely to be Perry’s attitude the next time he is asked to sign off on Skinner’s execution, which has already been rescheduled, for March 24.

With a competitive gubernatorial election coming up, one might think Perry would be less cavalier in greasing Texas' execution machinery, particularly given the Willingham case, which will continue to haunt the Capitol. But in Texas, a record that includes executing an innocent man -- and then brazenly covering it up -- is no reason to lose office. In Perry's case, it could mean re-election,

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. Follow her on Twitter.
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