- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2011

Former New Mexico governor and current Republican presidential hopeful Gary E. Johnson said he saw the dangers of the death penalty up close during his two terms in office — and says he is convinced Texas has executed innocent people.

In a wide-ranging interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times this week, Mr. Johnson, who is mounting a long-shot bid for GOP nomination, said his current opposition to the death penalty stems from having once pushed a bill to curtail appeals that he modeled on Texas law, but which, he now says, would have led in at least one case to the execution of innocent persons in a gang-murder case.

“If my legislation would have passed, they would have been put to death, and they would have been innocent. And I believe Texas has done the same,” he said, pointing to the neighboring state run by Gov. Rick Perry, who is also running for the presidential nomination.

He said he does not know for certain Texas has executed innocent people, but is convinced it has happened “just because of how many people have been put to death.”

Mr. Perry’s campaign referred calls to his official governor’s office, which said he is confident in the systems and safeguards the state has in place.

“Like the vast majority of Texans, Gov. Perry supports the death penalty as a fitting and constitutional punishment for the most heinous crimes,” said spokeswoman Lucy Nashed. “We are confident that Texas’ criminal justice system has the appropriate due process, thorough appeals and necessary protections to ensure that only those who are guilty receive the ultimate punishment.”

During one GOP presidential debate, the audience applauded Mr. Perry’s record of overseeing executions — something Mr. Johnson told The Times caused him to recoil.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, gosh, I bet there were a few of them that were innocent,’” he said.

Mr. Johnson, a 58-year-old former businessman who calls himself the “No. 9 candidate” in what most press accounts portray as an eight-candidate field, is fighting to win a regular place on the debate stages and higher visibility in opinion polls.

What’s unclear, however, is why he wants to be seen as part of the Republican field, with which he routinely disagrees on everything from immigration policy to marijuana to abortion.

He shook his head as he recalled some in the audience at another GOP debate booing a video of an openly gay soldier.

“Holy cow,” he said. “I wanted to just say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not a part of these people. I’m not a part of what they’re booing about here. This isn’t the Republican Party I’m a member of.’”

Mr. Johnson said he’s seeking to be the voice for the rest of the party: the non-activist, non-social conservatives he suspects are out there.

“I think the majority of Republicans would describe themselves the same way,” he said. “If you take me as No. 9 candidate, which I think that’s a safe place to put me, the eight that are ahead of me are all social conservatives. They’re not, in my opinion, necessarily representative of a majority of Republicans.”

A key part of his claim is that a majority of Republicans share his pro-choice views, despite polling data to the contrary. A Gallup analysis in June of polls over the last few years found that 68 percent of self-identified Republicans are pro-life.

In the interview with The Times Mr. Johnson also:

• Touted his more than 750 vetoes as governor, and said he secretly hopes another candidate challenges his claim that that total is more than the vetoes of all other governors at the time combined.

• Vowed to submit a balanced budget his first year in the White House, a budget he said would amount to a 43 percent spending cut.

• Voiced opposition to new tariffs on China, saying the free market should be left to control trade.

• Expressed surprise that his stance on legalizing marijuana hadn’t produced more support from the pro-pot movements that have won ballot initiatives across the country. “How does it not work that 100 million Americans who smoke marijuana haven’t donated $10 to my campaign? Or $1 million for that matter? Or $100,000 for that matter? They haven’t, and it’s surprising.”

• Opposed a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, arguing that legalizing marijuana would reduce smuggling and a better immigration system would ease the flow of illegal immigrants.

• Couldn’t name a Supreme Court justice he would use as a model as president in his picks for the high court, but recounted his litmus test for judges in New Mexico, which involved a hypothetical law mandating the death penalty for graffiti artists.

“There were some — many — who said, ‘yes,’ they would. There were many who said they wouldn’t, and then there were a handful who said, ‘Based on what you’re saying, I would have to implement the death penalty, but because that is just wrong, I would resign,’” Mr. Johnson said. He said he rejected the candidates who wouldn’t have carried out the execution, but was most intrigued by those who said they would resign.

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