AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is moving fast to pardon a U.S. Army sergeant convicted in the 2020 killing of an armed protester. So fast, the judge hasn’t even handed down a sentence.
Sgt. Daniel Perry faces up to life in prison after being convicted of murder last week in the fatal shooting of 28-year-old Garrett Foster, who had been legally carrying an AK-47 during a protest through Austin’s downtown while marching with demonstrators over police accountability and racial injustice. The case will next go to sentencing.
But over the weekend, Abbott made clear he believes Perry shouldn’t be punished. The three-term Republican governor, who hasn’t ruled out a 2024 presidential run, tweeted that he has already asked Texas’ parole board to expedite a review of Perry’s conviction and will “look forward” to signing a pardon.
The rush to act in the case of an off-duty soldier shooting a protester came amid immediate outrage among conservatives over Friday’s verdict, including by Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Abbott presented the dangled pardon as a defense of Texan’s right to defend themselves. Legal experts, however, said that looks like a pretense.
“It’s pretty unusual for a governor to step in and preempt a jury verdict,” said Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. “The politics are right there at the surface.”
Perry was working for a ride-sharing company in July 2020 when he turned onto a street and into one of the demonstrations that swept the country after Minneapolis police killed of George Floyd.
In video that was streamed live on Facebook, a car can be heard honking amid the crowd in downtown Austin. Then, several shots ring out, and protesters begin screaming and scattering.
Perry drove off, later calling police to report the shooting, and officers arrived to find Foster shot.
What led up to the gunfire was a core question in the trial that resulted in Perry’s conviction.
Witnesses testified that Foster never raised his rifle at Perry, and prosecutors said the sergeant could have driven off rather than opening fire with a handgun. Perry didn’t testify. But his defense attorneys have said Foster pointed his gun at the driver and that the shooting was self-defense.
Perry was stationed at Texas’ Fort Hood at the time of the shooting and most recently assigned to Fort Wainwright in Alaska. Defense lawyer Clint Broden said the conviction will end Perry’s Army service.
Broden told The Associated Press in a text message on Monday that his team has “not been in touch with the Governor nor his staff regarding a pardon.”
In the hours after the conviction, however, prominent conservatives did pressure Abbott to intervene.
Matt Rinaldi, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, said the case never should have been prosecuted, tagging Abbott’s account in a tweet calling for a pardon.
In primetime on Fox News, Carlson called Perry’s conviction a “legal atrocity” and said Abbott had declined to discuss a potential pardon. “So that is Greg Abbott’s position,” Carlson said. “There is no right of self-defense in Texas.”
Less than 24 hours after the verdict, Abbott tweeted that he had directed the state parole board to investigate the case and said he looked forward to signing a pardon “as soon as it hits my desk.” He suggested the jury “nullified” Texas’ so-called “Stand Your Ground” law, which, like similar laws in other states, removes the duty to retreat before using deadly force in the face of danger.
Travis County District Attorney José Garza, whose office prosecuted the case, called Abbott’s intervention “deeply troubling.” He said the jurors deliberated for more than 15 hours to find Perry “guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt,” and the case can be reviewed through the normal appeals process.
On Monday, the Democrat has sent a fundraising email off Abbott’s actions, telling supporters the Republican is “threatening to take over our criminal justice system.”
___ ABBOTT AND PARDONS
A former Texas judge and attorney general, Abbott has not publicly explained on how he reached his conclusion about Perry’s case, and his office Monday referred questions to his statement on Twitter.
But publicly calling for a pardon is a clear departure for Abbott, who in more than eight years as governor typically only issues a handful of year around Christmas. Most are given to Texans who were convicted of relatively minor offenses committed decades earlier.
“It is something we usually see many years after conviction,” said Sandra Guerra Thompson, professor at the University of Houston Law Center. She said a governor intervening before sentencing is a “dramatic departure” from the normal process.
In 2021, Abbott faced an unusually high-profile pardon decision surrounding George Floyd, who was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer and whose death was at the center of the protest in Austin. At the time, the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles had unanimously supported a posthumous pardon for Floyd over a 2004 drug arrest.
Floyd was arrested by a Houston officer who was later accused of falsifying evidence for years and eventually charged with murder. But two days before Christmas, Abbott’s office announced the board had unusually backpedaled on its decision after finding unspecified “procedural errors” with Floyd’s case.
Floyd’s case was sent back to the board for reconsideration. Nine months later, the board denied issuing a pardon.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press reporter Acacia Coronado contributed to this report.