Why Rick Perry won’t be hurt by the stay of Duane Buck’s execution

Holly Bailey
The Ticket

Rick Perry hasn't been shy about touting his record as governor of Texas on the campaign trail. In his bid for the Republican nomination, Perry has talked up job creation numbers in the state, his handling of the Texas budget and other favorable stats.

But here's a record Perry so far hasn't gone out of his way to mention: Since becoming the state's chief executive more than a decade ago, Perry has overseen 235 executions, more than any other governor in history.

It's an eye-popping statistic that's getting a little more attention today. On Thursday, the Supreme Court, which has generally declined to intervene in state death penalty cases in recent years, halted the execution of what would have been the 236th Texas prisoner sentenced to death on Perry's watch.

Duane Buck, 48, was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection for killing his ex-girlfriend and another man in her Houston apartment in 1995.

While Buck, who is black, hasn't claimed innocence, his lawyers have long suggested a psychologist who testified during his sentencing trial that black people are more likely to commit violence wrongfully influenced the jury. Buck asked for another trial—a request some Texas state prosecutors agreed should happen because of the racial reference, but never ultimately did.

A request for legal reprieve was put to Perry's office—but the Texas governor was in Iowa last night campaigning ahead of Buck's scheduled death. A spokesman for the campaign said the request would have fallen to his deputy, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who is in charge while Perry is out of state. But the Supreme Court acted first, blocking Buck's execution while it examines legal issues in the case.

A spokesman for Perry's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The case is sure to raise scrutiny about Perry's role in Texas' handling of the death penalty—especially in light of ongoing legal questions about past cases, in which critics say prisoners have been wrongfully executed.

During his decade in office, Perry has been more than just a bystander to the legal process in his state. As the Washington Post's Robert Barnes noted in a lengthy examination of Perry's record on the death penalty, the Texas governor vetoed legislation that would have blocked death sentences for the mentally retarded and trashed a Supreme Court decision that ruled juveniles ineligible for the death penalty.

Perry has been unapologetic about capital punishment in his state. During the Republican presidential debate held at the Reagan Library earlier this month, NBC's Brian Williams, the forum's moderator, cited the number of people executed under Perry's watch—prompting some in the audience to cheer—and asked the governor if he had "ever struggled to sleep at night" wondering if any of those people had been innocent.

"No, sir. I've never struggled with that at all," Perry replied. "The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place … 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, Perry added, "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 asked Perry what he thought about the audience's applause when he mentioned the number of people who had been executed in Texas.

"I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment," Perry said.

Polling suggests a majority of the country is on Perry's side. The most recent Gallup Poll on the country's feelings about the death penalty found 64 percent of those polled in favor of executing someone convicted of murder. It's a percentage that has been largely unchanged in the last decade—in spite of capital punishment cases being overturned on DNA evidence and other controversies. Forty-nine percent told Gallup the death penalty isn't used enough according to the October 2010 poll, the last time the organization surveyed on the issue.

While Perry may not face fallout among voters for his pro-death penalty stance, the real liability could be the governor's faith in Texas' judicial system and whether he was willing to take the lead on investigating cases that have reportedly been riddled with mistakes.

In 2009, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who unsuccessfully challenged Perry in the state's Republican gubernatorial primary, trashed the governor's handling of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for setting fire to his home and killing his three young daughters. Experts on the case, which was the subject of a lengthy New Yorker profile, say Willingham's life should have been spared because forensic evidence suggests he may have been innocent.

After Willingham's execution, the Texas Forensic Science Commission hired an arson expert to examine the overlooked evidence in the case, but before it could, Perry replaced three members of the commission, including its chairman. Hutchison accused Perry of "trying to ramrod a covering up" in the case. The governor, for his part, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and he has dismissed critics of the case as "latter day supposed experts."

If Perry wins the Republican presidential nomination, Democrats are sure to frame Perry's stance on capital punishment as a character issue—just as the party did in 2000 to George W. Bush--even though President Obama, like Perry, supports the death penalty. But so far, Perry's Republican rivals, most of whom also back the death penalty, don't seem interested in using the issue against him in the primary—especially as the economy seems to be the biggest issue driving 2012.

"This isn't a divisive issue for Republicans," an adviser to one of Perry's Republican rivals, who declined to be named discussing strategy, told The Ticket.