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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 01:25 PM ET, 09/08/2011

Presidential debate: Did Brian Williams come up lame on death penalty?

In the NBC/Politico presidential debate last night, Brian Williams posed a couple of death-penalty questions to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. First he asked if Perry had “struggled to sleep at night” with the possibility that any of the 234 people executed under Perry’s governorship may have been innocent.

No, said Perry.

Then Williams asked him what he thought of the crowd at the Reagan Library applauding at mention of the 234 number.

Perry responded with a lecture on “the ultimate justice.”

The candidate’s straight talk on executions earned him plaudits among post-debate pundits.

Williams’ performance hasn’t fared quite as well. Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy raps him for having failed to pose the right question, preferably one about Cameron Todd Willingham. Media Matters takes out the mallet and hits Williams---as well as his peers---for failing to ask not necessarily about Willingham but about “many wrongly convicted prisoners freed from death row in Texas in the last ten years.”

Not to be outdone, Douglas Berman of the blog “Sentencing Law and Policy” attacks Williams for posing a death penalty question that’s “both weak and readily enabled Gov. Perry to provide a standard-issue pro-death penalty response.” The blog recommends the following questions to keep Perry away from his pat lines:

*“Why do you think a state like Massachusetts has a much lower murder rate than Texas even though it lacks the death penalty while Texas executes dozens of persons each year?”;
*“Do you think the federal government should be actively involved in seeking death sentences for the most heinous murders committed in states without capital punishment?”;
*“Do you agree with George W. Bush’s statement in his 2005 State of the Union Address that ‘we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit’ and thus we should have the federal government involved in “fund]ing] special training for defense counsel in capital cases, because people on trial for their lives must have competent lawyers by their side”?

Politico Playbook’s Mike Allen this morning advised Perry to “give the same answer on executions in every debate.” If moderators take the advice of Mr. Sentencing Law and Policy, Perry won’t be able to.

By  |  01:25 PM ET, 09/08/2011

 
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