In his nearly 11 years as the state’s chief executive, Perry, now running for the Republican presidential nomination, has overseen more executions than any governor in modern history: 234 and counting. That’s more than the combined total in the next two states — Oklahoma and Virginia — since the death penalty was restored 35 years ago.
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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.
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But what is likely to draw the most attention as Perry campaigns is the case of Willingham, who was convicted in 1991 of setting fire to his home and killing his three young daughters. Shortly before his 2004 execution, defense attorneys gave Perry and the pardon board a report from an arson expert saying the forensic evidence used to convict Willingham was severely flawed.
Perry went ahead with the execution, and has refused to release information from his advisers about the evidence.
The state forensic science commission began to review the case and the state’s arson unit after investigative journalists cast increasing doubt on Willingham’s guilt. But just before the commission was to hear from an investigator it had hired, Perry dismissed the chairman and replaced three members of the commission.
Perry’s newly installed chairman, a prosecutor who had called Willingham a “guilty monster,” delayed the commission’s hearings and asked the attorney general for an opinion about whether the commission could actively investigate the Willingham case. Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) said last month that it could not.