LAKEWOOD, COLO.—There were a couple of telling moments in Wednesday's Republican debate. One was when a question about 9/11, and President Obama's decision to attack and execute Osama bin Laden drew not a single clap. The other was when Gov. Rick Perry, with an almost-feral expression on his face, bragged about executing 234 people in Texas, and a large portion of the audience applauded.
It's entirely possible that Wednesday's audience was what Shirley Jackson envisioned when she wrote The Lottery.
One of the people put to death, Cameron Todd Willingham, was quite possibly innocent. And if not for an exhaustive Texas Monthly investigation that freed another death row inmate, Perry would have been fine with Texas executing a provably innocent man, Anthony Graves, last year. [Read: Debate Shows GOP 2012 Contest Is a Two-Man Race]
Perry defensively touched on the Willingham case last when he mentioned offenders who kill children—Willingham was accused of murdering his three children by arson. Perry directly intervened to interrupt the exculpatory forensic process in the Willingham case, replacing three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, and kept the execution moving forward. He refused a stay of execution, despite mounting evidence against the arson accusation.
Perry's eagerness and braggadocio on the subject are disturbing. He told moderator Brian Williams that he hadn't lost a wink of sleep at night over any of the executions. I don't know about you, but if I'd presided over the deaths of more than 200 people, it would be cause for more than a few moments of self-reflection. [See a collection of political cartoons on the GOP hopefuls.]
Several years ago, one of my friends served as a cabinet member for a governor in another southern state. There were multiple appeals for clemency from prisoners on death row. None were granted, and the executions were carried out. But those responsible for making recommendations to the governor took their task to heart, did their due diligence, and were acutely conscious that they were signing off on the state putting a man to death. They lost plenty of sleep over it, and they weren't flip about it.
I am, like many people, conflicted about the death penalty. I recognize that there may be some circumstances in which it can be justified. The world is a better place without Ted Bundy in it. [Read: For Rick Perry, What’s Not to Like About The Confederate Constitution?]
But I also believe, despite our best intentions, it is beyond our flawed human capacity to implement the death penalty fairly, and that the Ted Bundys of the world are few and far between. Most death penalty cases are far more mundane and born of a combination of race, poverty, circumstance, and an overburdened judicial system. Too often the death penalty is an instrument of revenge, not justice.
Rick Perry's enthusiasm to the contrary, bragging about how many people your state has executed isn't an applause line, and it doesn't qualify you to be president.