Rick Perry By The Numbers

Rick Perry

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Amnesty International does not comment or take sides on elections.  But everyone knows that Rick Perry, Texas Governor for over a decade, is now running for President.  And everyone knows that during his tenure as Texas Governor, he has presided over a lot of executions. The total now sits at 234 (40% of all US executions carried out since Perry became Governor in December 2000).

Many folks also know that at least one of those, Cameron Todd Willingham, was probably innocent, and that evidence of his innocence was ignored by Governor Perry in the days and hours before Willingham was put to death.  And that an investigation into the dubious forensics that led to Willingham’s conviction was sidetracked when Perry suddenly put Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley in charge (Bradley is now being accused of withholding evidence of innocence in a case in his home county).

But there have been other cases of possible innocence, and, as currently scheduled, Perry’s 240th execution would be of Henry Skinner, a man whose innocence claim the Lone Star State is refusing to examine.

BY THE NUMBERS

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Texas Schedules One Execution, Tries To Forget Another

Hank Skinner, who resides on death row in Texas, won a case at the U.S. Supreme Court recently.  He got the right to sue, in federal court, for access to DNA evidence he says would exonerate him.  Officials in Gray County, Texas, are in possession of the evidence in question (including vaginal swabs, fingernail scrapings, hairs, and two bloody knives), but have refused to either test it or hand it over for testing.

So, a civil case is now pending in the Northern District of Texas, Amarillo Division.  But that hasn’t stopped Texas from going ahead and setting an execution date anyway.  Skinner is now scheduled to die on November 9.  His lawyers believe the date has been set as “an effort to put pressure on the federal court to act quickly.”

Why not just let the untested evidence be examined?

Perhaps for the same reason the Texas Attorney General recently ruled that the Texas Forensic Science Commission can’t look at any evidence collected before September 2005.  The Commission had been investigating the bogus fire science used to facilitate the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, which took place in 2004.

Apparently, the best way to avoid errors or mistakes (or worse) in Texas justice is to not look for them.

Will the Supreme Court force Texas to allow scientific testing?

Today the U.S. Supreme Court announced that they will hear the case of Henry “Hank” Skinner. Skinner, on Texas death row since 1993, is arguing that he should be allowed to use federal civil rights law to obtain DNA testing that might establish his innocence.  The hearing will take place this Fall.
 
Skinner’s guilt has been in question since the time of his conviction, and DNA testing, if allowed, could well provide some answers. Prosecutors have tried to prevent Skinner from getting the evidence tested, while Skinner’s lawyers have tried to use civil rights litigation to gain access to the DNA evidence.  As noted previously in this space, such efforts to suppress scientific inquiry that could resolve doubts and answer questions are nothing new in the Lone Star State.

In 1993, Henry Skinner was convicted in Texas of murdering his girlfriend and her two sons.  Although present when the three victims were murdered, Skinner argues he was intoxicated and passed out, thus incapable of committing the crimes. Skinner continues to seek DNA testing of crime scene evidence that has not yet been scientifically examined, and the testing of which he claims would clear him. In March, Skinner was less than an hour away from execution when the U.S. Supreme Court granted him a stay in order to have time to consider the petition they have just agreed to hear.

Is Ignorance the Best Policy?

UPDATE:

The US Supreme Court has stayed the execution of Henry Skinner, at least temporarily.  He has filed a petition to the Supreme Court, and if the Court declines to hear his petition, the stay will be lifted.  If the petition is accepted, the stay would continue indefinitely and there would be a hearing at the Supreme Court.

Today, Texas is scheduled to execute Henry “Hank” Skinner, despite the fact that readily available evidence in his case has never been tested for DNA which might prove his innocence (or confirm his guilt).  Adopting a policy of willful ignorance is nothing new for officials of the Lone Star State.  Infamously, last week, the Texas State Board of Education voted to remove Thomas Jefferson from the state’s social studies curriculum because he coined the phrase “separation of church and state.” His name was deleted from a list of famous writers who inspired 18th and 19th century revolutions. He wrote the Declaration of Independence.  

Six years ago, the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham was allowed to proceed, even though Governor Rick Perry and others were warned that the science used to convict Willingham of an arson that killed his three children was seriously flawed, and that the fire might have been an accident.  Last Fall, Governor Perry personally sabotaged an investigation into the science used in Willingham’s case, abruptly replacing three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just as it was about to hear from a nationally respected forensic fire science expert, Craig Beyler, whose report concluded that the fire should not have been ruled an arson.

Well, now it’s Spring 2010, and Mr. Beyler has still not had a chance to present his findings to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, but last night, he did participate in a panel that discussed the case, and the need for better forensic science, at Georgetown Law School here in DC.  According to the Innocence Project, three states (Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma) are considering legislative resolutions in support of using “solid science” in arson investigations.

Really?  We need legislative resolutions for that?

Sadly, yes. Texas officials not only don’t endorse “solid science,” they continue to actively thwart efforts to improve the quality of forensic investigations.  Executing Henry Skinner while grave doubt hangs over his conviction, when DNA tests could easily remove that doubt, is just the latest example that, for Rick Perry and company, ignorance remains the best policy.

Finality v. Fairness

Henry “Hank” Skinner is scheduled for execution in Texas on February 24.  A two-part review of the case was recently published by the Texas Tribune.  He is asking for DNA testing of evidence that was found at the crime scene but never tested.  He claims these tests would establish that someone else committed the crime for which he is slated to be put to death.  The state, of course, is opposing the tests. 

But, why?  The cost of allowing the testing would be a few extra months for a man who has already been on death row for almost 15 years.  The benefit would be guaranteeing that the state does not execute someone who is actually innocent.   Don’t the benefits outweigh the costs in this case?  Is it even close?

Sadly, this is the classic “Finality v. Fairness” battle that death penalty cases so often come down to.  And the importance of “finality” has been inflated out of all proportion.  While “finality” is necessary to ensure that justice is done, the state is also charged with ensuring “fairness” (and accuracy) in its pursuit of that justice.

(It should be noted that long prison sentences usually provide far more real ”finality” than death sentences, which are frequently overturned, sometimes re-instated, and mostly never carried out.)

Yet too often in death penalty cases the state (and the courts) seem to care only about “finality”.  Appeals with valid claims are rejected on technical grounds, and reasonable requests to test new evidence are aggressively resisted.  Even proof of actual innocence is no bar to the “finality” of an execution (though, depending on how the Troy Davis case turns out, that may change).  The result of all this, inevitably, is the execution, or near-execution, of the innocent and the undeserving.  The state of Texas should balance its enthusiasm for finality with a genuine commitment to fairness, and let all the evidence in Hank Skinner’s case be tested.