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Opinion: GOP debate: Thou shalt kill, cheer the Republicans

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Here’s how the most surreal moment of Wednesday night’s GOP presidential debate looks on a transcript:

MODERATOR BRIAN WILLIAMS: Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you...

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(APPLAUSE)

Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?

PERRY: 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.

WILLIAMS: What do you make of...

(APPLAUSE)

What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?

PERRY: 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 Perry and GOP voters cheer the fact that 234 people in Texas have been executed under the current governor is bad enough; worse is Perry’s shallow response (‘I’ve never struggled with it at all’) to a question that calls for introspection and an acknowledgement that sending that many people to the lethal injection gurney for committing heinous crimes is nothing to be proud of. Overseeing a fair criminal justice system that metes out the ultimate punishment is a sobering responsibility that no governor should accept as lightly as Perry apparently does, let alone relish to score political points. It’s a chore than demands struggling and second-guessing.

Still, it’s hard to stir up much sympathy for convicted murderers and child rapists. Which is why Perry is a particularly vulnerable target for death-penalty opponents: One of the inmates executed under his watch was very likely innocent.

Williams passed up on a perfect opportunity to press Perry on his handling of the Cameron Todd Willingham execution, a case that likely provides the first modern example in the U.S. of a man killed for a crime he didn’t commit. Willingham was executed in 2004 for the apparent arson deaths of his two daughters. The evidence used to prove Willingham set the fire that killed his children was based on obsolete investigation techniques, facts that were brought to Perry’s attention before the execution. The governor went on to frustrate an investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, replacing three of its members days before the board was set to discuss a report questioning Willingham’s death sentence.

I wrote in June, when Perry had yet to make his candidacy official, that a profound injustice evidently forgivable in Texas may not go over so well with Republicans across the country (and certainly not in California, host to Wednesday’s debate). There’s still plenty of time until the primaries next year, but judging by the audience’s enthusiasm over Texas’ productive death chamber, I may have been wrong.

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--Paul Thornton


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