Although this week's debate between the 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls had its fair share of memorable moments - take, for example, Michele Bachmann's apparent stumping for child labor and Ron Paul's concerns that the construction of a border fence between the US and Mexico could be "used against us, keeping us in" - one moment from the debate has been haunting me since Wednesday night.
In the run-up to a question about the use of capital punishment in Texas, debate moderator and MSNBC host Brian Williams was interrupted by the audience, which offered some of the loudest applause of the night for the mere mention of Rick Perry's record of executions during his governorship. And what exactly is Perry's record? While in office as the governor of Texas, Perry has overseen the execution of 230 prisoners, more executions "than any other modern governor of any state."
Here's the transcript of the exchange, via the Los Angeles Times:
MODERATOR BRIAN WILLIAMS: Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you...
Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?
PERRY: No, sir. I've never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which -- 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 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: What do you make of...
What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?
PERRY: I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of -- of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens -- and it's a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don't want you to commit those crimes against our citizens. And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice.
Here's the video of the exchange, showing an obviously shocked Brian Williams, via TPM:
The three-way exchange between Williams, Perry, and the audience is galling both for the grim certainty of Perry's answer, and perhaps even more so for the chilling endorsement that Perry's macabre superlative elicits from the audience.
Let's start with a few words about Perry's response. Perry begins by assuming that the State of Texas is equipped to offer persons accused of capital offenses a "fair hearing." The patent inequality of our nation's state and federal justice systems, particularly in regards to issues of race and economic standing, has been so extensively documented that I'll mention it only enough to say Governor Perry's objective claims of fairness should be considered highly suspect, at best. But two cases in particular highlight just how much sleep Perry ought to be losing over the dubious justice of his state's capital punishment binge.
As recently as October of last year, Texas exonerated Anthony Graves, who had spent 18 years on death row in Texas for a crime he did not commit. Graves was lucky enough to escape Perry's "ultimate justice," if luck is the appropriate descriptor for a life destroyed by wrongful incarceration.
And as if the exoneration of a death row inmate is not enough to give the Governor pause, serious doubts continue to surround the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham by the State of Texas. Despite a full report delivered to Governor Perry which debunked the scientific evidence linking Willingham to the crime for which he was convicted, Perry awarded no stay of execution, and Willingham was executed by lethal injection after almost twelve years on death row. A postmortem push for exoneration by the Texas Forensic Science Commission built on the findings presented to Governor Perry, but the Commission was ultimately prevented in 2009 from formally receiving concurring testimony from a national expert on the scientific illegitimacy of Willingham's conviction. Was Governor Perry aware of these findings? Of course; it was Governor Perry who stopped the Commission's proceedings.
Perry's fallacious claim that the "vast majority" of Americans support capital punishment is intimately tied to these and other examples of exoneration for wrongfully-convicted death row inmates. The evolution of public opinion around the death penalty has mirrored, to some extent, the evolution of increasingly sophisticated technology in the field of forensics. The increased use of DNA evidence in criminal trials has also led to the exoneration of scores of wrongfully convicted individuals, casting further doubts about the legitimacy of a process which, in theory, requires absolute certainty of a person's guilt.
According to The Texas Tribune:
More than 130 death row inmates nationwide have been exonerated since 1973 — including 12 in Texas — according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A 2010 Gallup News poll found that public approval of the death penalty had dropped from an all-time high of 80 percent in 1994 to 65 percent in 2009.
Unsurprisingly, conservative pundits have leapt to Perrys' defense, not in terms of his response, but by questioning the appropriateness of Williams' question. Fox News contributor Bernie Goldberg aired his grievances with the "liberal bias" of Williams' question on the the "O'Reilly Factor," and his criticisms were picked up by Fox News anchor Chris Williams during a summit with the brain trust holding down the couch at "Fox and Friends."
In Goldberg's estimation, for the apparently outed liberal Brian Williams to ask Rick Perry about whether being signatory to the largest spree of state-sponsored executions in modern American history occasionally pricks his conscience is analogous to a conservative pundit asking liberal Democrats who support reproductive rights if they "struggle to sleep at night knowing that abortion...ends a process that otherwise would result in a human being, a baby." Goldberg correctly identifies this hypothetical question as "loaded," and goes on to suggest that any conservative pundit who dared brave such a question would "rightly get whacked." Whatever that means.
Under any level of scrutiny, Goldberg's analogy fails to hold water. According to Goldberg's reasoning, lawmakers who vote in favor of reproductive rights for women bear the same level of responsibility for terminated pregnancies that Rick Perry bears as the ultimate arbiter of clemency for capital punishment. Yet lawmakers who support the reproductive rights of women are hardly asked to sign off on every procedure performed as a result. A vote for reproductive rights is a vote to allow a woman the freedom to make one of the most difficult and painful decisions imaginable, and Goldberg's crude attempt to place the moral imperative on (primarily white, male) lawmakers just underscores the inherent paternalism underlying many conservative arguments against reproductive rights. (Additionally, for what it's worth, under Rick Perry's administration Texas has trailed only New York and California for the number of recorded abortions performed.)
By contrast, Rick Perry has personally signed off on the order of execution for each of the 230 souls executed by the state of Texas during his tenure as governor.
But Goldberg's asinine analogy aside, the purpose of a debate is to vet the character and ability of potential candidates for the highest office in the land, and precious little should be considered off the table in terms of questions posed to candidates. As such, Brian Williams was entirely on point in probing the conscience of a governor whose tenure in office has been defined in part by a truly historical number of executions, and despite several high-profile cases which necessarily call into question the ability of the state of Texas to deliver effective justice - never mind Perry's claims of "ultimate justice" - in cases of capital punishment.
All of Fox News' obfustication aside, Williams' questions and Perry's responses were only part of the equation Wednesday night. Goldberg and Wallace's analogy between conservative support of the death penalty and progressive support for reproductive rights falls flat on its face when one considers the shocking enthusiasm with which the studio audience responded to Perry's record of executions.
The thought of a "liberal" studio audience applauding abortion figures is unfathomable. So too the thought of any Democratic politician discussing their stance on issues of reproductive rights with the same swagger and assumed bravado of Governor Perry.
So what is the take-away from this whole fiasco? If nothing else, it underscores the need for robust questioning of potential candidates for office, especially on moral issues, and despite wolf-cries of of conservative victimization. When it comes to the moral valuation of public policy, politicians should absolutely wrack their consciences over questions of reproductive rights, in the same way that governors should absolutely put to the question the morality of executing anyone, let alone 230 individuals, as the result of a demonstrably flawed system of justice. And we, as the voting public, should absolutely continue to question and probe these moral decisions in the hopes of goading our elected representatives into embodying the principles to which our democracy aspires.