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Court Relieves Rick Perry From Death Penalty Dilemma

Image: Rick Perry

Texas Gov. Rick Perry talks about recent Republican party gains and the road ahead for their party during a press conference at the Republican governors' conference in Boca Raton, Fla., Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. The organization's annual conference began Wednesday in a luxury oceanside resort where the nation's Republican governors are celebrating their party's recent success in the midterm elections while privately jockeying for position as the 2016 presidential contest looms. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter) J Pat Carter / AP

A U.S. Appeals Court's decision to issue a stay of a mentally ill man on Texas' death row just hours before he was scheduled to be executed means that Texas Governor Rick Perry no longer needs to make what could have been a controversial decision on whether the execution should proceed.

Perry could have granted a 30 day stay - the only option under his authority - but he remained mum on the issue, despite pressure from anti-death penalty groups, the United Nations and even some conservatives who don't necessarily oppose the death penalty. They said Scott Panetti's mental state should preclude him from execution. He is a schizophrenic with a long history of mental illness who was convicted of killing his in-laws in 1995.

The court's action means that the potential 2016 presidential candidate won't have to act on the case now that it has returned to the judicial system, but Perry's record on the death penalty during his 14 year service as governor is clear, and it's an issue that could come into play should he officially launch a presidential run.

Since Perry came into office in 2000, he has overseen 319 executions, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - that's more than half of the 517 executions Texas has conducted since the death penalty was reinstated in 1982. While the number of executions has been declining in Texas since its peak of 40 in 2000, it far outpaces any other state in the nation.

Governor orders probe into botched execution 2:43

Perry's record on the death penalty has raised plenty of concerns from opponents after he declined to halt executions in several controversial cases. One was the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, a case where the evidence is still in question but was recently determined by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, the state agency that must recommend commutation before Perry can act, not to recommend a posthumous pardon.

Perry has commuted 30 sentences since 2000, according to Perry's office. Most of those occurred in 2005 when the Supreme Court ruled that minors could not be executed. Perry has used his allowable authority to act independently of the board in just three cases since 2000, when he issued a temporary reprieve.

The death penalty momentarily became a campaign issue during Perry's 2012 presidential run. During a Republican primary debate in September of 2011 when moderator Brian Williams of NBC News noted that he Texas executed 234 people under his governorship at the time, a fact that drew loud applause from the GOP audience.

In his response, Perry said that he's "never struggled" with the possibility that an innocent person has been executed, calling Texas' justice system "thoughtful" and "clear."

"If you come into our state, you kill one of our children, kill a police officer, involved in a crime and kill one our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that means you will be executed," Perry said.

If Perry mounts another presidential campaign, the death penalty is unlikely to be a major campaign issue as big-picture ideas like the economy or foreign policy tend to dominate voters' moods, and public opinion is shifting. Support of the death penalty has dropped about 20 points over the past two decades, according to national polls. A Pew study from March of 2014 found that 55 percent of Americans supported the death penalty - a majority but far less than the 78 percent that supported it in 1993.

Republicans, however, are more supportive. In the same Pew study, 71 percent support it compared to 45 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of independents.

But Marc Hyden with Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty said conservative attitudes are shifting as well. He said that when he debuted his group at a popular conservative conference, CPAC, in 2012, he was concerned about the reception he would receive. Now Hyden points to three letters sent to Perry urging him to commute Panetti's sentence. One letter was sent by a group of evangelical pastors, another by former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and third by a broad group of conservatives, including former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who don't necessarily oppose the death penalty but do in the Panetti case because of the proven tragic mental state of Panetti.

Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said it was "probably in Perry's best interest" that the courts intervened, considering Perry's higher political aspirations.

"Perry's great strength has been that he channels the Texas political culture, the Texas swagger, pitch perfectly," Jillson said. "If he runs (for president), he wants to run as a staunch advocate but doesn't want to run as irrationally cold and heartless."

Falling public opinion has translated to mode states abolishing the death penalty. Since 2007, New Jersey, New Mexico, Maryland, Illinois and Connecticut made up the latest of the 18 states that have rid their criminal justice system of it. But none of those states are critical to the Republican nominating process and none of the those states are likely to vote for Rick Perry in a general election as they are all states that tend to vote for Democrats nationally.