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Abbott’s push to pardon man who murdered Austin protester ‘inherently political,’ observers say

Eric Gay
Associated Press

Gov. Greg Abbott declared his admiration for the state’s criminal justice system late last year, including its ability to grant some Texans a “second chance” through one specific mechanism: his office’s power to decide who gets a pardon.

That came after the governor pardoned two Texans following their convictions for minor crimes that included serving alcohol to a minor in in 2006 and assault by contact in 2015. They were sentenced to one year of deferred adjudication probation and a $269 fine, respectively.

Four months later, Abbott has taken a Texas-sized leap in touting his pardoning powers. He is now pushing for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to review the conviction of murderer Daniel Perry, who shot and killed Garrett Foster at a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020. A jury convicted Perry on Friday.

“Texas has one of the strongest ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws of self-defense that cannot be nullified by a jury or a progressive District Attorney,” Abbott, a former state attorney general, tweeted Saturday. Abbott added that — unlike the president or governors in other states — he can only issue a pardon based on a recommendation from the state’s board of pardons and paroles, which is made up of members he appoints. The board confirmed to NPR this week that it had received Abbott’s request.

Abbott is within his right to demand the review, but political experts tell The Texas Newsroom the timing of his request means the issue is more about politics than anything else. Perry has yet to be sentenced and filed a motion for a new trial on Tuesday. Abbott's pardons are usually issued in December, once the board has had a chance to review the cases before it.

“This is an inherently political issue. And the governor knows full well it's a political issue, which is why he's involved himself in it at such an early moment and in such a proactive manner,” said Mark P. Jones, a professor in the Department of Political Science and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Political Science Fellow at Rice University.

Jones said Abbott realizes that, to many Republican primary voters and activists, this is “a miscarriage of justice” against someone “who was standing up to the woke mob. ”

That assessment comes even though primary election season is over. Abbott cruised to victory in last year’s gubernatorial primary — despite facing challengers from the far-right flank of the GOP who said Abbott wasn’t conservative enough for Texas. He followed that win by trouncing Democrat Beto O’Rourke in the November general election.

Jones said that doesn’t matter, adding that Abbott’s move falls in line with a politician who wants people to know he’s in charge.

“The more in sync he is with the Republican primary electorate and the more support he has from those voters, the more likely it is that Republican state senators and representatives are going to listen to what he says or at least entertain his request, if not approve them,” Jones said. “The more support and backing he has from the base, the more influential he is in policy matters. Especially this session where he has quite a bit of heavy lifting.”

Republican strategist Evan Siegfried said Abbott left little doubt that the issue was more about politics than justice, pointing out the governor acted after being called out by right-wing figures following Perry’s guilty verdict. FOX News host Tucker Carlson called Parry’s conviction a “legal atrocity” and told viewers Abbott declined an invitation to appear on his show to discuss a pardon.

“[Perry] is convicted on Friday afternoon, almost instantly the right-wing social media activates,” Siegfried told CNN Monday night. “[Perry] hasn’t been sentenced yet. And if the governor wants to pardon him, he should. But he should do it the right way, which is to have his pardon board go over the trial, look to see if there is any exculpatory evidence. This is a much more nakedly political move, which I think sends a very chilling message.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

'Stand your ground' law in focus

Marc Levin, the Houston-based chief policy council at the non-partisan Council on Criminal Justice, said a recommendation on whether to Pardon Perry could hinge on his claim that he acted in self-defense. Under Texas law, a person has a right to use deadly force if they “reasonably believe the force is immediately necessary to protect the actor against the other's use or attempted use of unlawful force”, according to the statute.

NPR reported that Garrett Foster was openly carrying an AK-47 at the protest, which is legal in Texas. Meanwhile, Perry was armed with a revolver and shot Foster as he approached Perry's car.

Witnesses said Foster didn't raise his weapon or point it at Perry, but Perry’s defense attorneys said he feared for his life and that Foster had raised the AK-47. Prosecutors countered, saying Perry instigated the incident after running a traffic light and advancing toward the protesters. If the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles believes the prosecution’s narrative, it could spell trouble for Perry and Gov. Abbott.

“If you create the situation that leads to the of the alleged offense, then you're not able to claim that [defense],” Levin said. “I don't know what all the evidence [is]. I think it was several days — a week of testimony — and I guess there might be recordings and other evidence that the jury reviewed. So, certainly people have strongly held opinions about the background to this. But obviously, the jury had a lot of information before them.”

On Tuesday, Travis County District Attorney José Garza said he wrote to the board and asked it to consider specific evidence that was presented to the jury in the case and that they meet with Foster’s family.

“For as long the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has existed, it has been a cautious steward of the power of clemency in our State,” said DA Garza. “We look forward to working with the Board to present all evidence necessary for its consideration.”

Levin also noted that Abbott isn’t necessarily known for granting clemency.

“The board recommended to the governor 75 clemency grants in 2021 and 53 in 2020. The governor only granted eight in 2021 and seven in 2020,” he said.

The board also rejected a posthumous pardon request for George Floyd, who was convicted of a minor drug conviction in 2004.

The Travis County DA also said late Monday that if the pardon is granted, it would make the people of Austin and Travis County more susceptible to violence.

“By making this announcement the governor has undermined the rule of law in the state of Texas and he has made our community less safe,” Garza told CNN.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Julián Aguilar
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