The number is partly explained by sheer longevity at the helm of a huge state that has mastered the complicated legal maze of carrying out capital punishment.
But Perry has hardly shrunk from the task.
As the 2012 presidential race unfolds, Perry’s record will inevitably become part of the debate in a country where the number of death sentences handed down continues to fall and some states are renouncing executions. Polls show that capital punishment remains both popular and controversial. And although all of Perry’s main competitors, including President Obama, support the death penalty, Perry’s role stands out.
He vetoed a bill that would have spared the mentally retarded, and sharply criticized a Supreme Court ruling that juveniles were not eligible for the death penalty. He has found during his tenure only one inmate on Texas’s crowded death row he thought should receive the lesser sentence of life in prison.
And Perry’s role in the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham — who supporters said should have been at least temporarily spared when experts warned that faulty forensic science led to his conviction — is still the subject of investigation in Texas.
Perry has been unapologetic.
“If you don’t support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, don’t come to Texas,” he wrote in his book lauding states’ rights,
It is a bipartisan tradition. The annual rate of executions was actually higher when George W. Bush was the state’s governor, and Democratic Gov. Ann Richards oversaw 50 executions during her four-year term without ever granting clemency.
“In the big picture, it is hard to see how Perry is much different from Bush or Richards,” said Jordan Steiker, co-director of the University of Texas Law School’s Capital Punishment Center.
That’s partly because Texans and their representatives give governors little room to slow down the process.
Decisions to seek the death penalty are made by local prosecutors. Unlike in some states, the governor does not sign death warrants or set execution dates. The state constitution prohibits the governor from calling a moratorium on executions and allows clemency only when the Board of Pardons and Paroles recommends it, which is rarely.
Texas’s relatively streamlined process for death penalty appeals is overseen by an elected court not known for reversals. Federal lawsuits go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans, which has the same reputation.
“In many states, executions are blocked because the state courts, the federal courts or both are intensely hostile to capital punishment and look for any excuse to overturn convictions,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death-penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California. “So the short answer to why Texas has the most executions is (1) size, and (2) not being obstructed by hostile courts.”