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What “Always Erring on the Side of Life” Really Looks Like

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Slade Sohmer

By Slade Sohmer on September 13, 2011

The debate in Iowa featured Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Then THE Tim Pawlenty dropped out, Gov. Rick Perry dropped in, and the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library featured a question-and-answer session that would have made Ronald Reagan look like a job-killing, tax-raising, enemy-appeasing, immigrant-loving lib’rul. Onto the next: The CNN Tea Party Debate.

Much of the debate could be summed up by the view that every other candidate took their best shots at the sudden front-runner Perry, challenging his positions on Social Security, job creation and whether or not he Obama’d offensively mandated all girls in his state to receive an HPV vaccine against cancer.

But the most overlooked moment came when Perry tried to defend himself against Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rick “Santorum” Santorum about that HPV decision: “At the end of the day, you may criticize me about the way that I went about it,” he said, “[But] I am always going to err on the side of life.”

Always. Life. Always. Except in the case of 234 people deemed irredeemable by the state of Texas under Perry’s stewardship who have been executed since Perry became governor.

Now, you could argue that Perry errs on the side of other people’s lives, and that these 234 people had what was coming to them after an extensive trial and appeals process. And Perry himself argued that very position, saying at last Wednesday’s debate that he has “never struggled with that at all” after NBC News moderator Brian Williams asked “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?” No sir, not at all.

But there was a stunning lack of follow-up from Williams last week, a similarly stunning lack of follow-up from moderator Wolf Blitzer on Monday, and virtually no follow-up on either day from the national news media. Thankfully for us, Perry’s “I am always going to err on the side of life” comment allows us to bring it all up again. Wouldn’t erring on the side of life — always — mean that a death-row prisoner stay on death row until there is no shadow of doubt that the prisoner should have his or her life taken?

Of course, Rick Perry doesn’t always err on the side of life. Take the dubious case of Cameron Todd Willingham, for example. In December 1991, in the small city of Corsicana, 55 miles northeast of Waco, a fire broke out in Willingham’s home, killing his three young daughters. Williangham’s wife was out shopping, and he managed to escape the blaze with minor burns. Fire inspectors concluded that Willingham intentionally set the home ablaze, and after his conviction and appeals, Willingham was executed by the state of Texas in February 2004 for the deaths of his three children by arson.

But in 2009, the state of Texas ordered a re-examination of the case based on new scientific evidence that the fire was just a fire — no arson about it. Of course, Willingham had been dead for five years already. Dr. Craig Beyler, hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, found that “a finding of arson could not be sustained.” Witnesses maintained that Willingham confessed to them, but those statements contradicted previous statements. Willingham wouldn’t have been completely exonerated by the report, but erring on the side of life — always — could or should have meant a stay of execution for the prisoner.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Just two days before the Texas Forensic Science Commission was scheduled to meet and discuss Beyler’s report at a meeting in October 2009, Governor Perry replaced the chairperson of the commission and two other sitting members. So what did the the new chair do? If you said “canceled the meeting,” you’re today’s recipient of a gold star.

That’s not to say Willingham didn’t do it, or did do it. But for a man who is “always going to err on the side of life,” that certainly seems like odd behavior that doesn’t square up with his rhetoric.

Click on the next page below to see some more highlights of the CNN debate…

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