This week, Martin Robles became Texas' ninth execution of the year. Convicted in a Corpus Christi gang shooting, his death was not among the most controversial to happen on the watch of Gov. Rick Perry. During his decade in the Texas governor's office, Perry has overseen more than 230 executions, more than any governor in modern history.
Despite the controversy that has surrounded some of those cases, experts say that Perry's death penalty record is likely to help more than it hurts him as readies a White House bid.
Perry has overseen nearly half of the 470 executions in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974. In that time, public opinion has evolved as DNA evidence and other modern forensic science developments have exonerated many wrongfully convicted inmates across the country. More than 130 death row inmates nationwide have been exonerated since 1973 — including 12 in Texas — according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A 2010 Gallup News poll found that public approval of the death penalty had dropped from an all-time high of 80 percent in 1994 to 65 percent in 2009.
In Texas, public opinion about the death penalty is resoundingly positive. In a February 2010 poll University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 53 percent of respondents said they strongly supported the death penalty and other 25 percent supported it "somewhat." Nearly three fifths, 59 percent, said they believed the death penalty is implemented fairly in Texas.
Perry has commuted the death sentences of 31 inmates. The great majority of those — 28 — involved cases in which the defendant was a juvenile at the time of the crime. The governor was complying, somewhat reluctantly, with a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states could not execute those who were younger than 18 at the time of their crime. In two other cases, Perry commuted to life in prison the death sentences of inmates who were proven mentally retarded, another group of individuals the nation’s highest court has excluded from the death penalty.
And in the remaining case, Perry commuted the death sentence of Kenneth Foster to life in prison after his attorneys argued he was not the shooter in the May 1996 murder for which he was convicted but only drove the getaway car.
Perry’s tough-on-crime stance is likely to help him among conservative voters in the GOP primary. “There’s not a lot of concern among his target audience with these kinds of questions,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.
The question is whether that stance will sell in a general election, should Perry win the Republican nomination for president. Independent voters, who tend to be less staunch supporters of the death penalty nationally, may have trouble supporting a candidate so entrenched in capital punishment.