Dare Devils: Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Death Panel

11/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

I've chosen to ignore most of the health care rhetoric. I know what I believe -- the health care industry is so clearly broken that a thousand monkeys typing explanations of benefits could come up with that conclusion -- and I'm sick of hearing Republicans argue otherwise.
But on the subject of death panels, which Sarah Palin dropped into her recent Wall Street Journal op-ed with a wink, like a twelve-year old flashing a passing car -- "Dare me, guys?" -- I find the conservative argument bordering on the edge of delusional. Republicans like Sarah Palin need to stop playing truth or dare with people's lives.

Since when do conservatives care about anyone dying? With the exception of their fetish for protecting a few eggs produced by women's ovaries every twenty-eight days, the Republican Party has historically shown zero regard for whether anyone lives or dies. People die every day, buried with medical bills and coughing blood from their graves. The slaughter of Iraqis is neither shocking nor awesome. Immigrants scrambling across the border are not deserving of a life in this country, legal or otherwise. Former Republican Party of Texas vice chairman David Barton, now enjoying an appointment by the Texas Board of Education, has so little regard for a human's life that he wants to strike Cesar Chavez from the history books. In Barton's "expert" review of Texas schools' social studies curriculum, he says Chavez "lacks the stature, impact and overall contributions of others." He forgot to add, "Who are white" after that statement.

But the most disturbing representation of a life lost was the one sentenced to Cameron Todd Willingham, who in 1991 lost his three children in a house fire in Corsicana, Texas and was sentenced to death after refusing a plea-bargain for life in prison. The New Yorker recently took an in-depth look at the case, asking, "Did Texas execute an innocent man?"

Willingham, who maintained his innocence up to his death, spent twelve years in prison going through the government's appeals process. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, whose presiding judge is conservative Sharon "We Close at 5 O'Clock" Keller, "was known for upholding convictions when overwhelming exculpatory evidence came to light." The court denied Willingham of his writ of habeas corpus and a month before his execution, his file landed on the desk of Dr. Gerald Hurst, an Austin scientist and fire investigator who began reviewing the case. Hurst's report, which concluded there was "no evidence of arson," (a conclusion which has since been reached by three additional investigations) was sent to Governor Rick Perry and the Board of Pardons and Paroles along with Willingham's appeal for clemency. The board members are not required to review any submitted materials, and "usually don't debate a case in person." Instead, they cast their votes by fax -- a process which, the New Yorker article states, "has become known as 'death by fax.'" Even more troubling: "Between 1976 and 2004, when Willingham filed his petition, the State of Texas had approved only one application for clemency from a prisoner on death row."

It is, in fact, Texas' own death panel.

Health care reform at best will offer an alternative to the people who need it the most, stymie medical costs, and create change within an industry that has been allowed to run rampant. At worst, it would be symbolic proof that the option can be supported and improved from there.
In either case, it is not going to create a government panel to put people to death. We already have one.

"The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne."

- Cameron Todd Willingham's final statement, February 17, 2004

Update: From the comments below -- if you would like to sign a petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed, please click here.