AP Photo/Gregory Bull
Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks to a crowd during a rally Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, in San Diego.

Expect the death penalty to continue being a nationally prominent topic of conversation throughout Texas Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign.

During the Republican presidential debate Wednesday, the audience spontaneously applauded when moderator Brian Williams mentioned that the death penalty has been carried out on 234 Texas inmates during Gov. Rick Perry's time as governor — more than Oklahoma and Virginia (the second- and third-leading death-penalty states behind Texas) have combined to execute since 1976.

Although most of those 234 felons likely committed the crimes they were convicted for, that doesn't take all the sting out of the fact that on one occasion Perry likely sent an innocent man to his death, and on another defied multiple protests from prominent organizations to spare a foreigner's life.

In 2004 Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for starting the fire that killed his three young daughters. Both the New Yorker and PBS Frontline produced rigorous analysis of the facts in Willingham's case, and in both cases the evidence overwhelmingly points to Willingham's innocence. Nevertheless, Perry chose not to grant the prisoner's last petition for a stay of execution pending further investigation. The Washington Post noted last month, "Perry's role in the 2004 execution of Wil?lingham — who supporters said should have been at least temporarily spared when experts warned that faulty forensic science led to his conviction — is still the subject of investigation in Texas."

More recently, Texas executed Humberto Leal Garcia on July 7 despite formal protestations from the Justice Department, Mexico's government and the United Nations that Garcia's conviction had violated his rights as a Mexican national.

In an expansive article published by the Atlantic on Tuesday, Andrew Cohen revisited the Willingham and Leal executions while also looking ahead to some compelling death-penalty convictions still pending in Texas that await Perry's final decision.

"With a chorus of critics still pressing the governor to better explain his dubious handling of the aforementioned Willingham case, Perry now will have to justify his capital decisions more fully than he ever has before. He'll have to convince death penalty opponents and staunch advocates of capital punishment that he is willing and able to follow the rule of law even if it takes him to a place he doesn't necessarily want to go; a place where some condemned prisoners aren't executed as quickly as the Texas justice system wants them to be — or aren't executed at all."

EMAIL: jaskar@desnews.com