Killing people with the proper perspective

Since capital punishment was resumed in 1976, 1,174 convicted criminals have been executed by state governments in the US.  About three times as many, or another 3,297, were waiting on Death Row to be executed as of the beginning of 2009. With each capital case, the governor has the opportunity to review the case and either execute the prisoner or granting clemency or a pardon and spare the prisoner’s life. Must be a tough decision. One thousand, one hundred seventy-four times in the past 30 odd years, a governor has had the opportunity to spare life but instead decided to go ahead with the execution. And being a governor is only going to get harder, with many more life and death decisions coming to her or his desk in the coming decades.

Setting aside the question of capital punishment itself, we can all agree that the clemency/pardon review should be a gut-wrenching process for a governor, and one that any executive should approach with the proper perspective. No one wants to deal with life and death cavalierly. But looking at history, how seriously do governors actually take their duties when it comes to executing convicted felons?

First comes the easy part. Why should governors take the death penalty review process seriously? Because no one wants to kill an innocent man. The scores and scores of people wrongfully convicted, sentenced to death, and only later exonerated before being murdered by the state should give any governor pause to consider that, just maybe, the particular case on their desk may have slipped through the cracks. Even the most bloodthirsty politician can’t very well use the old saying that “to make an omelet you gotta crack a few eggs” when talking about murdering an innocent citizen. But even assuming the felon’s guilt, their ought to be a certain sense of decorum and duty when deciding whether to kill a man or put him in jail for life. We’re not Soviet Russia after all. But how do governors actually behave?

Looking at the record, there seem to be about 4 different perspectives that a governor can take on the review process:

  • The tough-as-nails defender of the public from the scum of the earth.

Exemplar: Texas Governor Rick Perry (R).  The New Yorker last month ran an in-depth look at Mr. Todd Willingham’s conviction and subsequent execution for supposedly burning his house down on top of his daughters’ heads. Apparently the two key pieces of evidence in his trial were a jailhouse informant who later recanted and forensics evidence from a ‘fire investigator’ whose conclusions in the case were later shown to be entirely unfounded. Perry went ahead and executed Willingham, as he has over 200 other prisoners in his time as governor, without seeming to give the Willingham case much thought. But then word got out that Todd Willingham may likely have been innocent of his crime. A government panel was organized to review the forensic evidence in the case, but a few days before the panel convened, Governor Perry dismissed several panel members, essentially closing the investigation. Calling the investigation “a waste of money“, Perry went on to say that Willingham was “a monster” and his guilt had been proven time and again. Oh really? Then why are so many prominent fire investigators contradicting the finding that the fire was arson? And if he’s clearly guilty, then why not let the panel conclude that and put the matter to rest? Sometimes it seems like Gov. Perry isn’t concerned with doing justice, and would rather not be bothered by the details. It takes a special kind of hubris to be so sure based on such little evidence. The Dallas Morning News calls it a “political blunder“, but isn’t the bigger point that we should consider this an ethical blunder a breach of the governor’s public duty to seek justice?

Here’s a hint to other governors: if you’ve executed 200 people but only ever commuted the sentence of 1 without having to be told to by a court of law, then maybe you aren’t taking your job seriously enough.

  • The public official performing his solemn duty.

Exemplar: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Schwarzenegger was born in a staunchly anti-death penalty village in Austria, and his village voiced its disapproval of Schwarzenegger’s approval of the death penalty during his time as governor. Responding to his fellow villagers, Schwarzenegger explained,  “The death penalty is law here, and I have to uphold the law of the land and the will of the people.” When the case of Crips founder Tookie Williams came to his desk in 2005, Schwarzenegger went through a serious and lengthy review process, calling counsel into a private meeting to discuss the particulars of the request for clemency. Schwarzenegger is no softie for criminals – he allowed the Williams execution to proceed, and continues to profess his belief that the death penalty is a necessary and effective deterrent. The defining different between Schwarzenegger and his fellow Republican Rick Perry is that the California Governator is actively engaged in the review cases that fall on his desk. Which is really the basic minimum we should all demand of our governors.

  • The tortured soul following the law.

Exemplar: Virginia Governor Tim Kaine (D). During his first campaign for governor, Kaine was attacked by his opponent for not supporting the death penalty. In his religiously-charged response, Kaine explained, “My faith teaches me life is sacred, I personally oppose the death penalty. But I take my oath of office seriously and I’ll enforce the death penalty.” It’s the sort of nuanced opinion that rarely gets put forward by a campaign during a heated electoral battle, but Kaine was elected anyway. One might wonder why he would want to put himself in such a difficult personal situation, but he did. During his term so far, Kaine has approved the execution of 9 people, and though he seems to hav eseriously grappled with each review case, e also made no serious attempt to convince the people of Virginia to limit the application of the death penalty.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D) takes the ‘tortured soul’ paradigm a step further than Kaine, publishing an anti-death penalty op-ed in the Washington Post that invoked the cause of human dignity in stopping state-sanctioned killing. O’Malley later convinced the legislature to reduce the scope of the death penalty, and O’Malley writes that Maryland now has one of the most restrictive death penalties among death penalty states.

  • The conscientious objector

Exemplar: Former Illinois Governor George Ryan (R, 1999-2003). Ryan, knowing full-well that his Republican base was likely to vigorously protest, introduced a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois in 2000, noting that at the time the state had executed 12 men since 1976, but had been forced to release and exhonerate 13 Death Row inmates based on further evidence of their innocence. That’s not a good track record for a justice system, and Ryan felt unable to put a convict to death knowing that there was a chance he or she was not guilty. When he left office in 2003, Ryan created a political firestorm by commuting all Death Row inmates’ sentences to life in prison, pardoning four others. Ryan came under attack from conservatives for what they called hubris,with Pat Buchanan calling his actions “pathetic“. For most sane observers, like me, however, Ryan’s actions seemed meritorious precisely because they were likely to be unpopular. That’s the mark of a governor truly grappling with the issues involved (a stark contrast from Rick “off with their heads” Perry).

So where do most governors fall among the four archetypes? It’s hard to say, given that most governors try to say as little as possible about their deliberations on specific review cases. But I would hope that whether you are pro-death penalty or anti-death penalty, we can at least agree that the way in which the government deliberates on each case matters. There is a proper perspective that all serious adults should have when making life and death decisions. And it seems like governors from Schwarzenegger to Ryan are at least trying to come to grips with the serious moral and legal issues involved. And hopefully, some day not too many years down the road, we will all agree that America’s public discourse has no room for the hubris of Governor Rick Perry.

The death penalty is law here, and I have to uphold the law of the land and the will of the people.

3 Responses to “Killing people with the proper perspective”

  1. 1 dudley sharp October 27, 2009 at 4:43 am

    a different perspective, based upon facts.

    The 130 (now 135) death row “innocents” scam

    “The Innocent Executed: Deception & Death Penalty Opponents”–death-penalty-opponents–draft.aspx

    1) “Cameron Todd Willingham: Media Meltdown & the Death Penalty:
    “Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?”, by David Grann, New Yorker–the-death-penalty.aspx

    As more reality comes to light, the more into disrepute run’s Grann’s article.

    My article, above, was written and released prior to the Corsicana Fire Marshall’s report, below

    2) EXCLUSIVE: City report on arson probe:
    State panel asks for city response in Willingham case

    3) No Doubts

    For a collection of articles, go to:

    Corsicana Daily Sun, The Willingham Files

    OTHER REPORTS: There is the potential for, at least, 3 more, official, reports on this case: the Texas Fire Marshall’s office, which will give an official and requested reply, the Corsicana Police Dept. and Navarro County District Attorney’s office, both of which, I speculate, may only contribute to the TFM report, but could issue their own reports.

    There is an official “report” which, it appears, few have paid attention to – the trial transcript.

    I find that rather important because, at least five persons, who were involved with the trial, the prosecutor, defense attorney, two surviving fire investigators and a juror have all voiced support for the verdict, still, in the light of the criticism of the arson forensics.

    One of those original fire investigators is, now, an active certified arson expert.

    Dudley Sharp
    e-mail, 713-622-5491,
    Houston, Texas

    Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O’Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

    A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

    • 2 JSC5 October 28, 2009 at 12:04 am

      Mr. Sharp,

      Thank you for commenting. In response to some of your points:

      – “Innocents scam”: The point you make on your website (that there is a distinction between legal and actual innocence and legal and actual guilt) is well-taken. In a legal-technical sense, my use of “exonerated” in my original post is inaccurate. A better way to put it would have been: “scores and scores of people have had their convictions overturned after having been put on Death Row”. However, I fail to see why this grammatical distinction should matter very much. Courts aren’t in the habit of tossing out murder convictions like Skittles. In fact, the presumption that the original verdict and sentence should stand, and the presumption of guilt after conviction, are such that a reversal is extremely unlikely. The fact that over 130 people who were about to be killed by the state were subsequently let go just goes to show the preponderance of exculpatory evidence in these cases. Proving “innocence” is a fool’s game, just like proving that Glenn Beck didn’t rape and murder a young girl in 1990 ( is a fool’s game, or proving any negative is a fool’s game. It’s a red herring, and the main point still stands. If our intentionally-conservative justice system decided to overturn the convictions, then that should give a rational observer pause about the accuracy of death penalty convictions in the first place.

      – New developments in the Willingham case: I agree that there have been some interesting new developments in the Willingham case. Most interestingly, his wife is now claiming he gave a deathbed confession of guilty. However, as documented in this followup piece by the New Yorker (, there are many reasons to doubt the veracity of this hearsay confession. I’ll admit that it is unclear whether or not Willingham was guilty. But that’s not the point. It’s always been uncertain whether or not he was guilty. The point is that there is enough legitimate uncertainty that the prudent thing for a governor to do would be to let the panel convene and hear the testimony about the arson evidence (the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case). Dismissing it out of hand is a brutally cold thing to do when dealing with life and death. As for your other links regarding the arson report, they don’t add anything new to the discussion. There are still many prominent national arson investigators who think the original investigation was bunk. I’m not sure why I should care that the amateur hack investigator from the original trial has now been certified as an arson investigator. He certainly wasn’t back then. As for your various points about several people from the case still pushing Willingham’s innocence, I’m unimpressed. Of course the prosecutor, judge, juror, and sham ‘arson investigators’ support the original verdict — they have the most to lose from growing doubts about the propriety of the original trial. The point is that enough legitimate doubt has been raised to call for an independent, high level commission. The very commission that Perry squashed because he doesn’t have the proper, serious attitude towards executions that we should all demand from our public officials.

      Again, thank you for commenting. I always appreciate a discussion.


  2. 3 Dudley Sharp October 28, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

    You state: However, I fail to see why this grammatical distinction should matter very much.

    reply: You are not active in this debate. The distinction is not grammatical, it is factual and significant. There is an obvious difference between the factually innocent and the legally innocent, or not guilty. The entire innocence debate is about how many actual innocents are sent to death row and what that means to the probability of executing an actually innocent person. We cannot execute a legally innocent person. So, the only thing that is relevant is the actually innocent.

    Yes, courts are in the habit of overturning death penalty cases, about 35% of which are overturned.

    I am not trying to impress you. I have introduced facts. Whether impressed or not, is of little import, to me. I can only hope that folks consider them.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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