Death penalty: How can Republicans like Rick Perry be so skeptical of government yet so committed to capital punishment?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Sept. 15 2011 7:10 PM

A Killer Issue

Republicans like Rick Perry are skeptical of everything the government does—except when it executes people.

(Continued from Page 1)

So grievous are the doubts about Davis' guilt in this murder that William Sessions, the FBI director under Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton, wrote an editorial today arguing that Davis should not be executed next week because "serious questions about Davis' guilt, highlighted by witness recantations, allegations of police coercion, and a lack of relevant physical evidence, continue to plague his conviction." Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr has similarly written that "even for death penalty supporters such as myself, the level of doubt inherent in this case is troubling."

It's unlikely any of this will matter. Allowing a possibly innocent man to die will be cast to the cheering crowds as the system "working." If people are dying, it seems, the system is always working.


Of course the problem is that when it comes to the American criminal justice system, the word "broken" is an understatement. Brandon Garrett's extraordinary book, Convicting the Innocent, (it was excerpted in Slate) makes abundantly clear that a system frequently predicated on bad evidence—including faulty eyewitness identifications, dubious forensic science, and coerced confessions—produces error at staggering rates. This isn't a system that suffers from the occasional "Oops!" Garrett and others have shown that there are pervasive and systemic elements of the criminal justice system that lead to innocent convictions. Of the 250 exonerations studied by Garrett, some 17 were capital cases.

Twelve death-row inmates have been exonerated in Texas alone since 1973. These are mainly innocent people who would have been executed but for the intervention of the Innocence Project, obsessive-compulsive reporters and paid private investigators, all of whom worked outside "the system" to bring injustice to light. These outsiders prove, with every passing year, that the system is riddled with flaws.

Anthony Graves was exonerated in Texas in 2010 for murders he did not commit, after spending 14 years on death row and as a result of what was described as the "worst" prosecutorial misconduct the special prosecutor assigned to his case had ever seen. The misconduct that led to Graves' conviction was unearthed though years of work by the state Innocence Project and a journalism class. Yet when Graves was finally freed, Perry claimed that "we have a justice system that is working, and he's a good example of—you continue to find errors that were made and clear them up."

His phrasing is more revealing than he knows. "We" have a system. "You" find the errors. Now get out there and start looking, people!

The exonerations are not just in Texas but nationwide, and they reflect the pathology of a broken system, not the wonders of a system with the capacity to self-correct. When Rick Perry is claiming that the system "works," he is either suggesting that it is without flaw or that when it comes to African-Americans or criminals, a few mistakenly executed innocents are an acceptable price to pay.

If you believe, as do the GOP presidential frontrunners, that government bureaucracies lead inexorably to error, cover-up, and waste, then there is no better place to start looking than the capital punishment system, which sentences and executes defendants in ways that are sloppy, racist, and corrupt. At any rate, a government bureaucracy that oversees education or health care deserves a far higher degree of regard—and far less sneering scrutiny—than a government bureaucracy that administers careless death.



Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B


Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.