Perry, Insomnia, Leadership, and the Death Penalty

When should a leader lose sleep over a decision?

A lot of ink has been spilled over NBC’s Brian Williams’ question to Rick Perry regarding the death penalty, the Republican candidates debate audience’s strange reaction to it, and Perry’s response. Conservatives see Williams’ question—“Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”—as a loaded query by a biased questioner who is pressing the progressive anti-death penalty agenda. Liberals see Perry’s answer as proof-positive that he is an unthinking, unfeeling, blood-thirsty monster.

Perry answered Williams this way:

“No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which — when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required. But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.”

The question and the answer tell us less about the death penalty than they do about leadership and the failure of most non-leaders to understand it. I don’t know what Williams’ question was intended to elicit. Whatever his intention, it was a provocative way to explore Perry’s leadership style, and that is a legitimate goal for any debate questioner.

Empathy is considered an ethical virtue for good reason: it is at the core of the Golden Rule. A person without empathy is less likely to put himself or herself in the other person’s place. The criminal justice process, however, is not a good fit for the Golden Rule. In the place of a guilty criminal, I would still probably want to be pardoned, set free, and given a second—or third, or fourth—chance to be law-abiding. We want our leaders to have the ability to empathize, but the justice system isn’t the best place to put empathy to the test. If Williams was trying to get Perry to assert an instinct that most Americans find humanizing and attractive, he picked the wrong context to attempt it. No, Perry said, in effect, I don’t empathize with murderers.

Williams’ question is more useful if is interpreted in a broader sense. What role do emotions play in your decision-making, Governor Perry? If this was the question, Perry’s answer was a good one, even though the likes of blogger Andrew Sullivan found it horrifying. Effective leaders often are not inclined to lose sleep over a decision. Leaders who lose sleep over decisions with life and death consequences tend to be vacillating and weak leaders. The time to lose sleep is before a decision, and then, once it is made, commit to it and move on.  Anxiety over whether a decision was correct is pointless and expends time and energy—and sleep—that a leader can better use for the next challenge.

Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to go ahead with the D-Day invasion despite terrible weather conditions, and Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan were two momentous decisions that ordinary human beings, like Brian Williams or Barack Obama, might have deliberated about indefinitely. Decisions, however, had to be made. In the case of the Normandy invasion, being wrong meant that Eisenhower had lost the war. For Truman, making the wrong decision meant that he was murdering innocent civilians. Both men later wrote that having made their calls, they did not second-guess themselves. That is the proper leadership mindset. A leader assesses the options, makes the best decision in his or her judgment in a timely fashion, and accepts accountability for the results. There should be no remorse for making a decision that turns out to be wrong, only for making a decision as the result of sloppy thinking, insufficient data, bias or emotion.

Williams, I suspect, as well as the majority of Americans who have never had to make a decision affecting the lives of others, don’t comprehend this. Neither do ineffective leaders. A decision that turns out to be correct is “good” and a decision that doesn’t work out is “bad.” A leader who thinks like this is likely to be petrified of taking action, because when lives are at stake, it is very, very rare to have perfect information and the certainty of a correct choice. Perry’s response to Williams stated that he trusts the justice system to make a correct assessment of a murderer’s guilt, and accepts responsibility for carrying out the sentence. That is a leader’s response, not a monster’s.

Opponents of the death penalty would require 100% certainty before a convicted killer could be executed, because they know 100% certainty is virtually impossible. That standard applied to any defendant accused of any crime would ensure a lawless United States. A more nuanced response from Perry, or any death penalty advocate, would be something like this:

“I know that the justice system isn’t perfect, and that it is inevitable that a citizen will sometimes be wrongly convicted of a crime, including murder. This is always a tragedy and a failure of the system, and we need to strive to make sure that this happens as rarely as possible. But if we insist on perfection before enforcing our laws, our laws will never be enforced. In the case of death penalty cases, the tragedy of a miscarriage of justice is magnified; nonetheless, an ultimate penalty for the worst offenses against society and humanity is necessary for society’s standards and values to be clear: there is a point at which a citizen forfeits the right to live among civilized people. The rare case of a wrongly executed individual is one of the terrible prices we must pay for upholding those standards. As a governor, I must not and will not send a prisoner to death unless I am convinced that the system has worked and that justice will be done, but once I make that determination, no—I will not lose sleep over my decision. And if it is shown later that I am wrong, like the system I am part of, I will devote myself to determining how I can do my job better in the future, while taking full responsibility for the consequences of my action.”

Perry’s actual answer, however, wasn’t bad. It would have been better if he acknowledged the obvious: sometimes innocent defendants get convicted.

24 thoughts on “Perry, Insomnia, Leadership, and the Death Penalty

  1. My father told me Perry once refused to stay an execution because he was afraid it would hurt his re-election despite, if not evidence of his innocence, at least evidence that created reasonable doubt. I’m not sure if the guy was executed or not.

    For me, as a supporter of the death penalty, if that story is true, that precludes Rick Perry from managing a Dairy Queen, much less being out .

  2. It was refreshing to hear a candidate and acknowledged state leader talk clearly and honestly, and not vacillate with a deceitful and/or over-long answer (like yours, Jack) to try to please everyone all the time. Virginia has the death penalty. Other states do, too. The only thing Perry might have pointed out is that Texas is the second largest state in the Union, so sheer demographics would put the numbers higher than other death-penalty states.

    Good for Perry. This is the kind of straight talk we’re just not used to any more, and it’s refreshing.

    • Elizabeth,
      Perry represents many things but “straight talk” isn’t one of them. Nearly everything that comes out his mouth is calculated to either start controversy or dodge it in some way (depending on his motive). Perry has little in the way of real policy, but he’s proved a master at manipulating the media and the public into achieving maximum air time for himself. It’s telling that he announced his candidacy in South Carolina as opposed to his home state in that he’s pretty hit-or-miss with the electorate here. In other words, Perry sucks.


  3. Perry basically said: We have a process. I’m a part of the checks and balances, but I ignore that role. I presuppose that everyone that gets through the other checks should die.

    • I think that’s correct, though you state it in the most pejorative form possible. Another would be–“absent new evidence, I don’t substitute my judgment for judges and juries who have a far more thorough knowledge of the case and the evidence than I do.”

        • I don’t believe that is his job. A governor is not a substitute for the whole justice system—I, for one, don’t trust Rick Perry, or any governor, to supersede the considered judgment of a trial with attorneys,rules, evidence, and a judge. If new evidence surfaces afterwards, that is a different matter. A governor substituting his or her judgment for that of the court without new information is an abuse of power.

          • Who said anything about substitute? Also, who said anything about cases with no new information?

            Perry is part of the system of justice…he just, proudly, doesn’t follow the specs of his job.

            • You did. If he reverses a court decision or changes a sentence, he’s substituting his judgment for the justice system. That is NOT his job. He may have the power to do it, but it is not his job to do it. His job is to remedy clear injustice. I know capital punishment foes believe executing any murderer, from Ted Bundy to Osama Bin Laden is unjust, but that’s not the standard.

              My problem is that there are pretty clearly some on death row in Texas who ARE there unjustly, and yes, Perry should step in.

              • He signs off on the executions right? Is he supposed to rubber stamp them?

                I’m opposed to the capital punishment system, but that’s not the point here. The point is that he doesn’t believe he has any role in the capital punishment system when he clearly does. If I can’t get rid of the system, I at least want someone who does their job in the system.

                Originally, I was trying to play off something you said. Basically, Perry’s statement says he doesn’t look backward at these decisions, and that’s good. I agree, but I also think that Perry’s statement says he doesn’t look at decisions at all, and that’s bad.

                • Agreed: if he doesn’t look at the decisions at all, that’s a breach of duty. For example, the decision in the West Memphis Three case was pure railroading, and a governor would be justified in saying, “Uh-us, not in my state.”

                  • Exactly. Political suicide, but ethically required. Perry’s statement implied that he doesn’t care about the truth or what’s right and wrong. If it gets through the famously flawed, discriminatory, and biased texas courts, that’s good enough for him.

  4. Jack,
    I suspect, though I cannot be certain, that it was meant as a directly indirect reference to the Todd Willingham case (who WAS executed and was also likely innocent) and Perry’s rather controversial handling of the case before, during, and after. Specifically is vehement denial of any responsibility and the ensuing coverup after the fact. Thus, while it may have been agenda-driven, perhaps, but if that’s what Williams had in mind, it wasn’t exactly out of line considering the office for which he’s running.


  5. For the record, I didn’t say that I thought Williams was asking a biased question (though he is, of course, demonstrably biased.) It was obviously a good question, I said I’ve been hearing and reading conservatives objecting to the question as a planned “gotcha.” I think it was fair.

  6. Pingback: Two ethicists consider Gov. Rick Perry, the audience at the Republican debate, and the death penalty « Ethics Bob

  7. Considering that the death penalty takes the lives of guilty poor and people of color disproportionately, and that it too often takes the life of innocents as well, I don’t see how anyone with a touch of humanity can carry it out without some misgivings. I’ve written more at

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