The Mythical Perfect Government Killing Machine

On September 7, Brian Williams asked a question of Rick Perry at the Republican presidential campaign debate. It was about the 234 executions that have taken place under Perry’s governorship. The question itself was not widely covered. What really caused a stir was the audience response to that statistic: applause and later cheers; the audience was overjoyed that so many people had been executed.

It is unfortunate that the question did not get more coverage because it is an important one. Williams asked,

Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times, have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?

Perry brushed off the question, claiming that the state of Texas had a very “thoughtful, a very clear process in place.” He continued on, saying, “If you come into our state… and you kill… one of our citizens… you will be executed.”

That wasn’t the question, though, was it?

To make it perfectly clear to Governor Perry: is it possible that someone who comes into your state might be executed even if he hadn’t murdered anyone?

This is not a question that any death penalty advocate wants to answer. Conservatives like to claim that the government can’t do anything right. Two of their favorite sayings from St. Reagan are, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” and, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”

So are we to believe that the government can’t do anything right except when it comes to guilty decisions on death penalty cases?[1] That is what conservatives are claiming: our judicial system is perfect.[2] Got that?

Since 1973, we have seen 69 people taken off of death row because DNA evidence has proven them to be innocent. That certainly suggests that before DNA evidence was viable, just as many innocent people were executed. What’s more, most death penalty cases have no DNA evidence. These cases, in which no DNA is available that could possibly exonerate the accused, show that it is entirely reasonable that just as many of these people are innocent.

Liberals do not claim that the government is perfect—only that it is useful and necessary. In order to believe in the death penalty, one must believe that in this regard the government is infallible. But the most fervent believers in the death penalty are those who believe that the government is utterly incompetent. In order to hold these opinions, one must ignore all the evidence and believe in some magical place called Government-Can’t-Do-Anything-Right-But-They-Are-Perfect-When-It-Comes-To-The-Death-Penalty-Land.


[1] Many people, include Rick Perry in the video above, make the argument that the appeal process somehow makes the death penalty faultless—that it provides a error-free check to balance a otherwise imperfect judicial system. This is not a compelling argument. For one thing, plenty of people have been proven to be innocent after their appeals have been exhausted (for example, John Thompson). Secondly, only the original trial comes close to being truly fair. Each step in the appeals process puts greater limits on the evidence that can be used. It is not, as is commonly believed, the case that each person accused of murder (or anything else) gets four or five tries to be found not guilty.

[2] There is another brand of conservative who claims that any innocents who are executed are unfortunate casualties in the judicial war against murder, and that it in no way comprises the integrity of the system itself. Such a philosophy is repugnant. Let me only say here that such a system is as guilty of murder as any person who is legitimately put to death by the system. And what do we do to murderers? At the very least, we give them life without the possibility of parole so they cannot hurt any more innocent people.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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