Why the Texas Governor Commuted a Death Sentence

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


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.

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate