As Gov. Rick Perry touts his tough-on-crime policies on the national political stage, the case of Cameron Todd Willingham will continue to be scrutinized. Scientists have raised questions about whether Willingham set the blaze that killed his three daughters and led to his 2004 execution.
But Willingham’s execution is not the only controversial one the governor has presided over. During nearly 11 years in office, Perry has overseen 234 executions — by far the most of any recent governor in the United States — and has rarely used his power to grant clemency. He has granted 31 death row commutations; most of those — 28 — were the result of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning capital punishment for minors.
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the governor can only grant clemency when the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles — whose members Perry appoints — recommends that action. He has only disagreed with the board three times when it recommended clemency in death penalty cases, she said.
“The governor takes his clemency authority very seriously, and considers the total facts of every case before making a decision,” she said. (Independent of the board, the governor may grant a one-time 30-day reprieve delaying an execution; Perry has issued one reprieve.)
To his critics, his parsimonious use of clemency is notable because of continuing concerns about the ability of prisoners facing capital charges in Texas to retain quality legal representation, the execution of those who were minors when they committed their crimes, the ability of some prisoners to intellectually understand their punishment and the international ramifications of executing foreign nationals.
The Texas Tribune has compiled a database of all the executions in Texas under Perry’s leadership. Below, some of the most controversial, by category.
Kelsey Patterson was sentenced to death for the September 1992 shooting deaths of Louis Oates and Dorothy Harris in Palestine.
Testimony showed that without provocation, Patterson walked up to Oates, 63, the owner of Oates Oil Co., and shot him. He shot Harris, 41, when she came out to see what was going on. Patterson then went to a friend’s home nearby, stripped down to his socks and waited in the street for police to arrive.
Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist and popular prosecution expert witness who earned the label “Dr. Death” because he rarely found defendants too mentally unfit to face the death penalty, told jurors Patterson was sane at the time of the murders. At trial, Patterson testified at length about devices the military had planted in his head.
From prison, he sent incoherent letters to the courts, including a 2004 letter to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in which he wrote that he wanted to “conduct my legal work needed to stop the execution murder assaults injury execution date murder machines grave graveyard murder ...”
Shortly before his execution on May 18, 2004, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended that Perry grant clemency, which Perry rejected. He worried that if he commuted the sentence, Patterson might be released on parole. Patterson’s last statement was a final testimony to his mental condition: “Statement to what? State what? I am not guilty of the charge of capital murder. Steal me and my family’s money. My truth will always be my truth. There is no kin and no friend; no fear what you do to me. No kin to you undertaker.”
Napoleon Beazley was convicted of shooting John Luttig, 63, in Tyler during a 1994 carjacking. Beazley, 17 at the time, was driving around with two friends, a pistol and a sawed-off shotgun when they spotted Luttig driving a Mercedes and followed him to his home. Beazley, the trial record showed, shot Luttig in the head and stole the car, which he backed into a retaining wall and then abandoned.
A jury sentenced Beazley — a former high school class president and the son of a city councilman — to death in 1995.
The Supreme Court did not bar the execution of juveniles until 2005, but by the early 2000s, many states had prohibited the practice. As Beazley’s May 28, 2002, execution date approached, 18 Texas legislators wrote to Perry, asking him to grant clemency. Judge Cynthia Stevens Kent, the trial judge who would have to later sign Beazley’s execution warrant, also asked the governor to commute the sentence to life in prison. The requests were denied.
“To delay his punishment is to delay justice,” Perry told reporters at the time.
In a final statement the 25-year-old wrote that he was not the same person who had committed the murder. “I’m sorry that it was something in me that caused all of this to happen to begin with,” he wrote. “Tonight we tell the world that there are no second chances in the eyes of justice.”
Not the Shooter
Robert Lee Thompson did not fire the bullet that resulted in his 2009 execution. Thompson and his accomplice, Sammy Butler, robbed a Houston convenience store in 1996. Thompson shot one of the clerks four times. The man survived.
Butler shot the other clerk, Mansoor Bhai Rahim Mohammed, who died. During Butler’s 1998 trial prosecutors could not prove that Butler intended to kill Mohammed. He received a life sentence and is eligible for parole in 2036.
Jurors, however, assessed the death penalty against Thompson in 1998. Thompson had also been charged — but not convicted — in several other aggravated robberies, including three that involved murders.
The courts rejected the argument that Thompson should not receive a harsher sentence than his accomplice, but the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles issued a rare clemency recommendation and advised that the sentence be commuted to life in prison.
“After reviewing all of the facts in the case of Robert Lee Thompson, who had a murderous history and participated in the killing of Mansoor Bhai Rahim Mohammed,” Perry said in a statement, “I have decided to uphold the jury’s capital murder conviction and capital punishment.”
Thompson was executed on Nov. 19, 2009.
Leonard Uresti Rojas was convicted in 1996 of shooting to death his common-law wife and his brother. The appellate lawyer appointed to handle Rojas’ case was inexperienced, on probation with the state bar and suffered from mental illness, according to court documents. He had been disciplined for not adequately serving his clients and was serving three probated sentences from the bar while he was working on Rojas’ case. He missed crucial deadlines for filing appeals on Rojas’ behalf, effectively eliminating any chance he might have had for relief.
Shortly before his scheduled execution, new attorneys took on Rojas’ case. They appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and asked Perry for a reprieve.
The pleas failed, and Rojas was executed on Dec. 4, 2002.
In a dissenting opinion published after the execution, Tom Price, an appeals court justice, scathingly rebuked the court’s decision. Death penalty appeals, he wrote, should not be left to lawyers with disciplinary problems and no experience.
“He neglected his duties,” Price wrote. “It is hard to imagine that there was no one more able or better qualified.”