“It Takes Balls To Execute An Innocent Man”

Occasionally I stumble into a discussion of whether anywhere in the U.S. a government may have executed an innocent person.  Generally I note the horrible Texas case in which Texas fought for years for the point that a convicted murderer whose three allowed appeals had been exhausted should not be allowed to reopen his case simply because new evidence of his innocence had emerged.  In Herrera v. Collins (506 US 390, 1993), Texas won the right to not allow evidence of innocence to get a review of the case, and the man was executed.

Ladies and gentlemen I ask you:  Why would a state fight for the right to execute an innocent man, to the Supreme Court, if it did not intend to use that right?

The question rises more frequently these days as Texas Gov. Rick Perry steams toward announcing he will run for the presidency.

I point out that Herrera came down nearly eight years before Perry stumbled into the governor’s chair, his having been standing outside the door as Lieutenant Governor when George W. Bush persuaded the Supreme Court — most of the same justices — to stop both the popular vote and change the electoral vote to give him the presidency.  So we can’t blame that one on Perry.

But we can blame the execution of Todd Willingham on Rick Perry, even understanding that he was relying on what he assumed to be good evidence in his naturally uncurious waltz of destruction across Texas.   Perry could claim he got bad advice.  Though Texas’s governer really has little more than ceremonial power and some appointments, for someone like Perry it is a big job he can barely handle.  People would cut him slack on letting an innocent man die, convicted of a capital crime that as the evidence showed at the time probably did not occur, if he’d just confess it.

Instead, Perry engaged in a four-year campaign to cover up the affair — a cover up that is so far successful.

Jonathan Chait blogging at New Republic cites Politico and The New Yorker on the way to painting all Texans as morally bankrupt for allowing the coverup to go on — justifiably, I think.  While the newspapers cover the story, outrage does not rise from the drought-stricken populace.  New Republic’s blog explained the cover-up, and Texas’s blase attitude:

Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman have a story for Politico about Rick Perry’s limitations as a general election candidate. It’s a really excellent piece on its own terms, but at the same time, it’s a bit of a parody of a Politico story in that it takes a vital moral question, drains it of all its moral significance, and presents it in purely electoral terms. The thesis of the piece is that Perry appeals to very conservative white southerners, but not to anybody else, making him a questionable choice to head the Republican ticket. The piece bears out that thesis pretty well. In the middle it includes a glancing reference to one episode of Perry’s gubernatorial tenure:

Perry would also have to answer for parts of his record that have either never been fully scrutinized in Texas, or that might be far more problematic before a national audience.

Veterans of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s unsuccessful 2010 primary challenge to Perry recalled being stunned at the way attacks bounced off the governor in a strongly conservative state gripped by tea party fever. Multiple former 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.”

The Willingham case is just one episode in Perry’s gubernatorial tenure that could be revived against him in the very different context of a national race, potentially compromising him in a general election.

If you’re not familiar with this episode, David Grann wrote about in for the New Yorker in 2009 in what may be the single greatest piece of journalism I have ever read in my life. (I am biased, as David is a friend and former colleague.) The upshot is that Perry is essentially an accessory to murder. He executed an innocent man, displaying zero interest in the man’s innocence. When a commission subsequently investigated the episode, Perry fired its members.

I’m a Texan, and I’m appalled.  Dear Reader, what can a Texan do?  Please advise.

Surely the rest of America would be concerned and shocked, no?  We can excuse goofs in the histories of our presidential candidates.  Especially since Nixon, we should be doubly wary of those who work hard to cover up their errors, rather than learn from them.

By the way, in the latest action, the office of the Texas Attorney General issued a report on the duties of the commission established to investigate Texas justice to make it more fair — the commission whose members Perry fired when they got close to the Willingham case.  The report says that that Willingham case is water under the bridge, that the commission may not investigatet cases that predate the commission’s creation.

It’s a gross miscarriage of justice, and an attack on the democratic form of government which relies very much on continuous improvement of governmental processes, especially the due processes of criminal justice.

8 Responses to “It Takes Balls To Execute An Innocent Man”

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Humor is so hard in electrons.

    You made your point just fine. American cannot thrive if its tax policies are intended to benefit only the richest few.

    In the ’60s and ’70s we had similar discussions, especially focused on hunger and poverty. There was a bumper sticker: “Eat the rich.”

    Many of the rich missed the humor then, too.


  2. ghostdogjedi says:

    Alright so maybe I didn’t articulate that last comment very well. My apologies.


  3. James Kessler says:

    What was that line? “It never ceases to amaze me that a group of people who are pro-war, pro-death penalty, pro-letting insurance companies letting people die, pro-torture, pro-nukes, and pro-gun can consider themselves pro-life.”


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Survive on rich people alone? I don’t know. I’ve never tried to eat one, and I don’t know anyone else who has. I don’t think there are enough of them to go around.

    Maybe we should make it policy to enrichen the poor, as they say in Springfield. Chicken in every pot, salad on every table, we don’t have to survive on rich people alone.


  5. ghostdogjedi says:

    So that confirms it then. America simply does not give a shit about the poor and disabled in this country. America doesn’t give a crap about a man’s innocence. But tell me. Does America really think that it can survive on rich people alone?


  6. Jim says:

    Hello Pangolin!

    In some instances, you may be onto something. There are those malevolent bugs who simply love killing, not unlike that character in
    “The Green Mile”…who just couldn’t wait for the opportunity to be the lead-man when it came time to electrocute a convict.

    I don’t think a lot of death penalty enthusiasts (as opposed to those who tacitly accept the status quo) are all ginned up about it for reasons of pure racism, hate or necrophilia. It’s not quite like someone purposely hating Jews or Gypsies or Homosexuals…wanting them dead…and then either killing them personally or cheering as the state does it.

    It’s more of an overall air of elitism and arrogance that simply presumes earners and wealth producers belong. Those who do not fit into that category must either…

    *serve and defend the elite, cheerfully and patiently waiting for their turn to come


    *shut the hell up and die

    If they die of hunger, fine. If they die because of untreated illness, that’s okay. If they die as innocent bystanders in the cross-fire of a street gang shootout, it’s their own damn fault for living in one of “those neighborhoods”. If they had worked harder, complained less and got off food stamps, they too could be standing in the queue for a place in “Fiddler’s Green”.

    So that part of the herd not culled by crime, disease or hunger brought on by conservative austerity programs can die on the gurney with a needle in their arm. What difference does innocence or guilt have to do with it? They are guilty by virtue of not being rich or not desperately wanting to be.

    God help those who just want “enough”.

    No, Pangolin. This is social darwinism at its best. It may not work as quickly or efficiently as it has in this particular anarcho-conservative paradise…


    …but give us time. Mr. Norquist cannot make it all happen at once, even with relative control over much of the broadcast media.

    And so it goes…


  7. Pangolin says:

    I honestly don’t think death penalty advocates care about the guilt or innocence of any particular criminal. They don’t seem to care if they have the right person or even if an actual crime was committed.

    They just want somebody to die by the numbers.


  8. Jim says:

    Ed asks, “Surely the rest of America would be concerned and shocked, no?”


    Because most of these men and women…perhaps all of them…are either poor or brown or mentally handicapped. Such can not be legitimately considered human in the anarcho-conservative times in which we live. The only people who matter are “producers”, “earners” and “wealth creators”.

    They have rights, Ed. Not poors. Please make a note of it.


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