Why the Texas Governor Commuted a Death Sentence

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Kenneth Foster clearly did not deserve to die. His crime: driving a car used in a robbery that led to a murder he never took part in. But his case was by no means unique in Texas, and so it came as a surprise today when Gov. Rick Perry commuted his sentence. “I’m concerned about Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously,” Perry said in a statement, “and it is an issue I think the legislature should examine.” A conservative Republican wants to examine capital murder law? To say the least, Perry is doing his part to Keep Austin Weird.

So why did this happen? It certainly helped that Foster had become an international anti-death penalty cause celebre supported by President Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmund Tutu and Susan Sarandon. Still, celebrities and activists have adopted other death row inmates (free Mumia!) to little effect.

Weird as it may sound, the pardon is probably best explained as the result of a gradually increasing skepticism in Texas of the criminal justice system and, yes, the death penalty. Consider this: death penalty prosecutions in the nation’s execution capital, Harris County, Texas, have been in steep decline; every major newspaper in Texas has called for a moratorium on the death penalty or opposes it entirely; and in 2005 the state legislature passed a law allowing life imprisonment without parole, which has given judges and jurors a new way to be “tough on crime” without killing people. “Perhaps the reality that people aren’t so hip on the death penalty anymore is finally getting across, even to Rick Perry,” Jeff Blackburn, the founder and chief counsel of the Texas Innocence Project, told me. “I think this is about where people are at in the State of Texas–the old lies that have been told them are starting to be revealed.”

Anyone living in Texas in recent years couldn’t help but notice a string of high-profile criminal justice scandals–racism in Tulia, pervasively botched evidence in the Houston crime lab, and most recently, a striking number of exonerations in Dallas on DNA evidence. “Ten years ago if you told people that the criminal justice system falsely convicts the innocent, you were either a communist or a nut or both,” Blackburn says. “Now, everybody gets that. Everybody has seen it fail.”

Including Perry. Which is not to say that he cares most of the time. Blackburn and other defense advocates still believe plenty of people are wrongly put to death in the state. But Perry is a good politician: he appears to understand that the pendulum–or the scythe–is swinging the other way in Texas, and that he needs to get out of the way before it lops his head off.

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