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September 14, 2011

Death and Texas

By Anthony Barnes

Has American culture reached a point to where Rick Perry can be seriously considered presidential material? If so, what does that say about American culture?



 SCIENCE FRICTION: Perry -- In God we trust   (AP Photo)

"It takes balls to execute an innocent man." -- Rick Perry supporter

Sometimes, when I think about Texas' twisted "live or let die" spirit that attends the unrestrained gusto with which that state executes its citizens (on average, about once every two weeks), it brings to mind a lyric by old-school hip-hop artist Big Daddy Kane which goes as follows:  

"I'll take them from (age) eight to eighty; blind, crippled, or crazy."

Or another, by rapper Ice Cube: ""so if you is (sic) or ain't a gang-banger; keep one in the chamber""  

Or perhaps most fitting -- particularly if you are Texas Governor Rick Perry, the consensus frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination -- the old saying about "Kill them all, for the Lord knows them that are his."

But I'm also thinking about how South Africa's President, Thabo Mbeki, still does not believe that acquired immune deficiency syndrome is caused by HIV and how that belief parallels many held by Gov. Perry, who, for example, continues to thumb his nose at global warming bell-ringers and to claim that he sees no credible scientific basis to support a belief in evolution.  

Now in many respects, South Africa is among its continent's most developed nations. In fact, in 2006 the Mbeki Administration reversed its treatment policies in recognition of AIDS' relationship to HIV.   Nevertheless, it's probably safe to assume that for many of Perry's supporters, persistent HIV/AIDS denialism by South Africa's president offers clear evidence of Mbeki's leadership over a primitive culture.   But it also should perhaps cause one to wonder just how Rick Perry's supporters would describe the culture that defines their America; the quasi-theocratic dominion at which their crusade storms to "take back" from Barack Obama. It is cause to question whether it is the role of America's Commander in Chief that they seek for Perry, or that of Minister in Chief.

Consider Perry's comments to a group of Texas business leaders in August:

"At 27 years old, I knew that I had been called to the ministry.   I've just always been really stunned by how big a pulpit I was going to have.   I still am.   I truly believe with all my heart that God has put me in this place at this time to do his will."

Indeed, of the entire field of GOP presidential candidates (not withstanding Sen. Michele Bachmann, who's clearly ignorant on most matters of science), it is party frontrunner Perry who has most credibly expressed to the Republican base, the kind of contempt for science that has enabled him to rhetorically slither around the compelling body of evidence connecting mankind to global warming.   But it also harkens to pertinent questions related to his anti-evolution belief, including:  If God is the creator of man, who then, is the creator of God?   If Rick Perry knows the answer to that question, the next question is: How does he know?

A glutton for punishment

Of late, there is much speculation that Perry's delusions of rapture and antipathy toward science have been underlying factors in the aggregation, during his watch, of the highest number of state executions in modern history.   After all, to true believers, control over either life or death is probably as close to having God-like power as one can get.   Regardless, what is clearly obvious is that Gov. Rick's God is an indifferent, vengeful entity that's had its hands full sorting through the scores of souls dispatched its way via his main disciple's death chambers.

Since America revived the death penalty in 1976, Texas has executed 471 of its citizens including juveniles and the mentally-impaired, as well as non-citizen foreign nationals.   Of these executions, Rick Perry, in office since 2000, has presided over 235 -- serial killer numbers representing 40 percent more than were executed during George W. Bush's tenure as Texas governor.   By contrast, over that same 35--year span, California, a state with a population recorded by the Census Bureau to be about 50 percent larger than Texas, has executed just 13.

But it's not necessarily the volume that some find troubling; it's the wanton callousness that has been injected into the process by the "pro-life" Perry for whom the execution of human beings appears to be a religious experience.   The pro-execution culture of Perry's Texas seems the polar opposite of that found in a state like Illinois, where the capital punishment process became so corrupt that at the urging of its governor, that state's legislature simply abolished it in March of this year.   Little along those lines is bound to happen neither in Texas nor under any circumstance in which Perry holds such power.   The record of death penalty cases in which the governor has played a role seems a story of the kind of callous indifference which many of Perry supporters would assume describes Satan-worshippers, paid assassins, and, of course, Islamic fundamentalists.

It wouldn't be fair to fail at acknowledging that in Texas, unlike many states, it's no simple matter for the governor to unilaterally stop or delay an execution. In order to grant clemency, a Texas governor requires a recommendation from the state Board of Paroles. Nevertheless, whenever Perry's been presented with such a recommendation, his has been the reaction expected of a glutton for punishment.   Taking from the Nancy Reagan playbook, he routinely just says no.  

However a Texas governor may, without an outside recommendation, delay an execution by issuing a one-time 30-day stay, but with regard to that option, Perry has been beyond parsimonious, granted just a single reprieve. Overall, the majority of Perry's interventions in capital punishment cases involve juveniles.   Twenty-eight of his 31 death row commutations went to juveniles. But one shouldn't read too much into that ratio. The only apparent reason he's ever intervened to spare the life of a condemned juvenile was because he had no choice; in 2005, the Supreme Court banned the execution of minors.   

Indeed, it's hard to fathom how an individual so caught up in the personification of faith as Perry could seem so oblivious to his own impiety.   Perhaps the starkest example of this is the now-infamous 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texan widely considered to have been wrongly convicted.   It was this murder case about which the Governor famously stated: "justice delayed is justice denied"   -- after being made aware of potential exculpatory information -- in his refusal to delay Willingham's execution.

Justice denied?   Really?   Even in cases, like Willingham's, where there is considerable doubt as to whether even the most elementary standard for justice had been met?  

Indeed, notwithstanding the specter of a moralistic, faith-spouting, self-proclaimed "pro-lifer" exhibiting an apparent relish for putting people to death, his absurdly paradoxical handling of the Willingham case seems furthered considering that someone as anti-science as Perry would accept the use by Texas prosecutors of what's been called "junk science" as the basis for moving forward with Willingham's eventual execution.   After all, if science is essentially table d'hôte and not a la carte, wouldn't an anti-science point of view also include the rejection of junk science?  

Folklore and myths

Willingham was convicted of deliberately starting a fire in 1991 that resulted in deaths of his three children.   Gov. Perry, aware of questions about the accuracy of the state's arson investigation of the fire refused to intervene and Willingham went to his death still insisting on his innocence.   His case has been the subject of a Frontline documentary and a meticulously detailed feature published in the New Yorker magazine.

Added to this whole episode are charges of a possible cover-up by Perry who replaced three members, including the chairman,   of a state panel -- formed to examine the results of the initial arson investigation which led to Willingham's murder charge -- just days in advance of the release of a report of the panel's findings at a scheduled public hearing.   One of the first moves made by the panel's new Chairman, John Bradley , was to cancel the hearing.

What is known is that Dr. Gerald Hurst, an Austin scientist and fire investigator, had reviewed the case and concluded there was "no evidence of arson," a finding that mirrored those reached by other independent fire investigators.   Furthermore, Craig Beyler, chairman of the International Association of Fire Safety Science, in a n analysis funded by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, found that the state's investigators basically ignored scientific methods for analyzing fires described in NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, relying instead on "folklore" and "myths."

Yet, according to Wikipedia's account of the events:

Governor Perry refused to grant a stay of execution, saying through a spokesperson that "The Governor made his decision based on the facts of the case." Governor Perry said that the "supposed experts" (using finger quotes) were wrong and not to listen to anti-death penalty "propaganda".   Perry aide Mary Anne Wiley said the commission's $30,000 hiring of fire scientist Craig Beyler was a waste of taxpayer money. ... one of the prosecutors, admitted that an "undeniably flawed forensic report" was used to convict Willingham, but claimed that other reasons established guilt.

Unfortunately, there are other Texans whose convictions and subsequent death sentences during Rick Perry's watch rest on similar "rickety" grounds including that of Larry Ray Swearingen, whose 1998 murder conviction is currently being challenged after it was discovered that Swearingen was in a county lock-up at the time of the murder.   Swearingen's conviction was also based of disputed forensic evidence.  

Another case that might rank as among the most egregiously obscene examples of overzealousness by Texas authorities would be that of Duane Edward Buck.   Although Buck's murder conviction is not in dispute, he nevertheless wound up with a death sentence handed down largely on the basis of his race.   During the sentencing phase of Buck's 1995 conviction, an "expert" witness for the prosecution, former chief psychologist for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Walter Quijano, testified that Buck's race was cause for "increased likelihood of future dangerousness" and therefore warrants his execution.

Buck is African-American.  

The fact that capital punishment is no crime deterrent has been well-documented, while statistically,   murder rates among states without the death penalty are generally lower than those of death penalty states. But, while integrity of the capital punishment process has long been questioned over issues of racial prejudice, rarely has that prejudice been exhibited so blatantly in open court as it was during Buck's sentencing phase. Furthermore, it occurred despite the assurances by the state of Texas to the U.S. Supreme Court 20 years ago that:   "no correlation exists between the race or ethnic background of a defendant and the probability that he will be either convicted of capital murder or given the death penalty."  

Buck's execution is scheduled for the 15th of this month.   Through a variety of means including an ACLU-sponsored on-line petition, supporters have urged the Texas Board of Pardons and Gov. Perry to seek clemency for Buck and recommend a new sentencing trial.  

Further background on the Buck case can be found here.   

Texas Death Cheer 

It seems clear that the death penalty, particularly as it is a applied in Rick Perry's Texas --- just like the refusal to accept recognized standards for the treatment of HIV patients in South Africa had been until fairly recently   ---   serves as little more than a pathogen to an enlightened society.   However, if it must be part of society, it's imperative that the integrity of the capital punishment process remain intact.   Otherwise, ours becomes a culture that is less distinguishable from societies considered "primitive" by Perry supporters.

But in fact, the integrity of the system of capital punishment is likely of little matter to that wide chunk of the Republican base completely blissed out by Perry's faith-inspired "Tough Texan" cinema.     For this group, vengeance allows no room for poignancy.   That much seems clear when closely examining the Willingham case, judging from remarks contained in an article published in Salon in August, part of which read:

Multiple former (Texas gubernatorial candidate, Senator Kay Bailey) Hutchison advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man -- Cameron Todd Willingham -- and got this response from a primary voter:

"It takes balls to execute an innocent man."

With that, we are provided a further glimpse into the cultural norm of the kind of folks who erupted in lustful applause at the Reagan Library during the recent MSNBC-sponsored Republican debate, as moderator Brian Williams raised a point about the record number of executions in Texas since Perry became governor.    They are among those who've obviously bought into the rhetoric by Perry about Social Security being an illegal "Ponzi scheme;" express no uncertainty about their belief in "intelligent design;" share Perry's disbelief in climate change;   and who respond favorably to the Governor's implied threats about jumping "ugly" with the Chairman of the U. S. Federal Reserve

Indeed they are rugged, 10th amendment individualists, who cross over into full-fledged absolutism on the issue of the death penalty. What they appear to see as essential to their culture is the inclusion of executions as a part of it lest real "justice" be left undone. Like guns and God, the right of the state to put its wayward citizens to death is integral to the cultural norms which define their America.

And they are the ones most inspired by the entirety -- the physical; and the rhetoric -- of the full-faithed ballsiness of Perry's swagger.   So enthused, in fact, that their inspiration triggers a perhaps sub-conscious, but indeed primitive instinct that draws many Perry supporters to the amazing conclusion that "it takes balls to execute an innocent man."  

But what's even more amazing is how obviously proud many of them are to admit it.

Submitters Bio:
Anthony Barnes, of Boston, Massachusetts, is a free-lance writer who leans toward the progressive end of the political spectrum.

"When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn't change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world." - Unknown Monk (1100 AD)