Political Death

In the 1980s heyday of Gov. Mark White, the Democrat played the hang-’em-high card as enthusiastically as any Texas pol. He’d represented the state as attorney general on the first execution after the death penalty came back in 1982, then presided over 19 executions as governor from 1983-1987. Running unsuccessfully for another term in 1990, he aired a commercial featuring pictures of executed men, declaring, “As governor, I made sure they received the ultimate punishment – death.” This week, White told reporters that he’d changed his tune, telling the Dallas Morning News that “as tough as old Mark was on crime and for the death penalty, when I review it today, I have very, very serious reservations about trusting our system of government making the right decision every time and not executing an innocent person.”White’s “ultimate punishment” spot did not air during a general election campaign, when you might have expected a Democrat to be on the defensive, running against a swaggering law-and-order Republican. It aired during a wild three-way Democratic fight between then-Attorney Gen. Jim Maddox, White and Ann Richards, who was elected governor that year. The Democrats engaged in a tussle over who was the hang-’em-highest that year, with Maddox accusing Richards of being the choice of death-row inmates (burn!) and touting his own record of representing the state during many an execution. Nineteen years later, the current Democratic field, hardly the heavyweights of 1990, are singing a slightly different tune on the death penalty in the wake of the scandal over Gov. Rick Perry’s handling of the Cameron Todd Willingham execution. But so far, none of them has taken the logical step and called for a moratorium on executions in Texas while the state studies and attempts the fix the manifold flaws in its criminal-justice system. The three leading Democratic contenders have expressed concern over the governor’s stifling of the investigation into Willingham’s execution. But “concern” is about as passionate as it gets. Kinky Friedman made his opinion known during the 2006 campaign, saying he’s “not anti-death penalty,” but is “anti-the-wrong-guy-getting-executed.” Hank Gilbert, the East Texas rancher backed by many grassroots progressives, told the Miami Herald that he favors the death penalty, but that “with today’s advanced technology, we must ensure that those accused of capital crimes are afforded access to the best forensic tools available to ensure no innocent person is unfairly convicted.” Tom Schieffer, the Fort Worth businessman and former U.S. ambassador, is also pro-death penalty. His campaign put out a statement reading in part: “Opponents and supporters of the death penalty are united in their belief that only the guilty should be executed. If a mistake was made in this case, we need to know it. By the same token, if Mr. Willingham was guilty, we need to know that too.” The solution? “The commission needs to reschedule the hearing as soon as possible.” Don’t expect to hear anything stronger from former Travis County D.A. Ronnie Earle, another death-penalty supporter, if he gets into the race as expected. “Texans believe in law and order,” he told the News, “but mostly Texans are fair. They believe in the death penalty, but the guy had better be guilty.”As reactions go to the fact that the state likely executed an innocent man – and that the Republican governor is actively meddling in an investigation that might establish that fact and force the state to admit its deadly error – this is mighty weak tea. Even Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s campaign had something ever-so-slightly tougher to say, accusing Perry of trying to “cover up a critical investigation.” The tepidness of the Democratic candidates’ responses is a vivid illustration of why none of them has gained any serious traction among the party faithful. You could glom together the collective political guts of these characters and not fill a thimble. Even if the Democrats all support the death penalty, there are grave issues to raise about Perry’s interference in the process – and his apparent lack of careful consideration before he allowed Willingham’s execution to go forward. There are broader problems with arson investigations, and broader problems with the state’s administration of the death penalty. There could hardly be a fatter political target right now – or a better opportunity for a Democrat to stake out some higher ground, clearly and insistently. But the only gubernatorial candidate who’s said anything worth saying is longshot libertarian Republican Debra Medina, who wrote on Facebook: “While I will agree that there are some crimes so heinous the death penalty is the only just punishment, we must protect innocent human life. That means suspending the sentence where evidence indicates that there is a shadow of doubt. Governor Perry apparently had the opportunity to do that in this case. He chose not to.”And now five years later just as evidence is to be presented to the Texas Forensic Science Commission the governor has gutted the panel. If the governor cared about justice, he’d work hard to insure that the panel’s work is completed in all due haste, that all the evidence is considered. And if that evidence reveals we have a problem in our criminal justice system, he’d work swiftly to remedy it so as not to ever execute an innocent person. It takes some maturity, some serious maturity to face reality. Texas deserves that in our leader. This constant changing of the guard when he doesn’t like the findings is more evidence that the governor behaves more and more like a tyrant, ‘off with their heads’ when people don’t agree with him. Texas deserves better.” Would that be too much for a Democrat to say? And is a moratorium truly too radical an idea, under the circumstances, for a single Democratic candidate to call for? While the vast (but gradually shrinking) majority of Texans still support the death penalty, the notion that the state should make sure that no more innocent citizens are killed would surely not repel huge numbers of voters. And it would give Democratic voters, at long last, the choice of at least one candidate with some semblance of courage.

Published at 12:00 am CST
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