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Quite a few people were shocked to hear the audience members at Rick Perry's first Republican presidential debate burst into applause after they heard that the Texas governor leads the nation in executions. That's why we have political debates. They teach you things, not only about the candidates but also about their voters.

The applause came after NBC's Brian Williams said, "Your state [Texas] has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times."

Many were horrified that the conservative Republicans in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., would applaud. I was surprised that they didn't jump to their feet, cheer and slap high-fives with one another.

When the applause died down enough for Williams to ask his question, he continued, "Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?"

"I've never struggled with that at all," said Perry, because Texas has "a very thoughtful, a very clear process" in which the accused gets " a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that's required."

Yet, the state's record under his governorship -- and prior to it -- reveals quite a bit to make you toss and turn a bit at night, provided you have a conscience.

Texas has long been known to execute more criminals than any other state, which would not be nearly as troubling if the record didn't show the state's pattern of fairness and double-checking to be so haphazard.

Perry has granted only 31 death row commutations, 28 of which resulted from a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning capital punishment for minors, according to a database of state executions compiled by the Texas Tribune. The data also show a high number of executions of people who were minors when they committed their crimes, people who were mentally unable to understand their punishment and people who received questionable counsel.

Those are hardly new concerns. A Tribune investigation in 2000 found such bizarre cases as death row inmates represented by an attorney who slept at trial and capital cases based on such unreliable evidence as jailhouse informants and the visual comparison of hairs.

Yet, if Perry isn't losing a lick of sleep over these cases, it is largely because, as he said when Williams asked for his thoughts on the "dynamic" that brought applause to the very mention of Perry's execution record: "I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment."

He may be right about that, at least in our politics. Neither party has wanted to appear soft on capital punishment in a presidential race since 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, a bold opponent of executions, went down to defeat.

But it is Perry's certainty that I find most troubling. It is the same certainty about Texas' executions expressed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, when he ran for president in 2000.

It sounds like the same certainty that thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that American troops would be greeted with flowers as liberators.

And I am certain that most Americans, regardless of party, want to understand justice as, first and foremost, punishment of the guilty, not just for those who we hope are guilty.