Bush oversees 135th execution

Texas executes death row inmate Gary Graham for a 1981 killing as last-minute appeals fail.

By Alicia Montgomery

Published June 23, 2000 8:01AM (EDT)

Gary Graham's last hours were full of fight, but Texas went ahead with his execution, making Graham the 135th man to meet that fate on George W. Bush's watch. CNN reported that, early Thursday evening, a divided Supreme Court refused to stay the execution in a 5-4 vote. The Texas governor implied that his hands were tied after the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to grant a reprieve, but Bush had maintained from the start that the facts supported Graham's death sentence for his conviction in the 1981 murder of Bobby Lambert.

"I recognize that there are good people who oppose the death penalty," Bush said in a statement released Thursday night. "I have heard their message and I respect their heart-felt point of view ... After considering all the facts, I am confident justice is being done. May God bless the victims of these crimes, their families and Mr. Graham."

Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan
The demonstrations outside the Huntsville prison where Graham was executed passed largely without incident, but the Dallas Morning News reported that a threat of violence hung over the protests. Among the 500 gathered were several Black Panthers, some of whom had carried rifles and shotguns during a demonstration earlier in the day. At that time, a small contingent from the Ku Klux Klan joined the fray on the side of the execution's supporters, waving Confederate flags and taunting those on the other side.

Inside the prison, Graham supporters Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Bianca Jagger of Amnesty International witnessed the execution. Jackson praised Graham's resistance, which the inmate displayed until his last moments. "He refused to eat today," Jackson said. "He refused to give in tonight." Sharpton vowed that serious consequences awaited Bush as a result of his capital punishment record. "We need to send a message back to Mr. Bush, who washed his hands of this," Sharpton said. "We will wash our hands when it comes time for you, Mr. Bush."

Afterthoughts and political fallout
Graham's execution will hurt Bush's chances at the polls if Jackson has anything to say about it. Reuters reported that the civil rights veteran said that the execution reflects badly on Bush's character and challenges his reputation as a leader. "If his judgment is so faulty as to assume that reasonable doubt does not warrant a stay of execution, then it is, in fact, too faulty to lead," he told reporters.

Jackson wasn't alone in that assessment. Experts quoted by the Associated Press said that those who find fault in Bush's administration of death row in Texas are unlikely to trust him enough to be a good commander in chief. "Someday, he might have to push a button that doesn't just fry an individual but says, 'We are at war,'" said Marc Landy, chairman of Boston College's political science department. "The issue with Bush is not does he have the guts to do it but is he a judicious, thoughtful, mature leader?" And political scientist Benjamin Page of Northwestern University believes that some of Bush's previous statements on the death penalty may come back to haunt him. Page cited an occasion in a primary debate when Bush laughed at a question about a death row inmate. "It's the question of basic brainpower but also the question of basic humanity and depth of feeling," said Page. "This issue is a keyhole into his character."

The New York Times weighed in by condemning both Bush and Gore for cowardice on the issue in its lead editorial. The piece blasts Bush for his professed certainty in the perfection of the Texas justice system, despite its well-documented shortcomings, and condemns Gore for his contentment with sitting on the sidelines of the debate over the wisdom of a temporary moratorium on executions. The crux of the New York Times' argument is that the moral authority required to administer capital punishment is severely compromised when leaders shrug off mistakes in the process. "By any moral standard," the editorial concludes, "there can be no margin for error when the state takes human life."

Gore suffers heavy losses on "Battleground"
There's no letup in the bad-news barrage that pollsters are firing at Gore's campaign. The latest comes from Voter.com, which found that Bush now leads the vice president by 52 percent to 40 percent. Though the margin shown in this poll is significant, it's worth noting that the survey took place before an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey and another by CNN and Time magazine, both of which show a tighter race.

"The Body" and the stiff
Of all the political odd couples, none can beat the new twosome of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and Al Gore. Reuters reports that Gore and his wife, Tipper, tagged along with Ventura and his wife for much of the vice president's "progress and prosperity" tour in Minnesota. The two men met during a Gore campaign stop in March, but both insist that, this time, it's personal. "I think the vice president looks at me more as a break from getting away from the rigors of the campaign trail," Ventura said in an NBC interview. "We really don't talk that much on issues when we get together. We talk on other things. We tell old war stories. We enjoy the company of each other and have fun." For his part, Gore denied that politics had much to do with the visit, and dismissed the notion that he was chasing the coveted Ventura endorsement. "I'm not working on his endorsement," Gore laughed. "I'm working on his vote."

Will Gore be stalked by son of Starr?
If the vice president tires of Ventura's company, the Justice Department may be prepared to supply him with a new companion. According to the Associated Press, a special counsel is likely to dig into Gore's role in 1996 campaign fundraising abuses. Sources report that Robert Conrad, supervising attorney for the Justice Department task force investigating fundraising in the 1996 election, is prepared to make that recommendation. When questioned about the matter on the campaign trail, Gore pleaded ignorance. "You're privy to news I don't have," he said.

First lady's "Travelgate" trauma is over
Hillary Rodham Clinton got a welcome message from the endless-investigation front, ABC News reports. Independent counsel Robert Ray has chucked any prosecution plans in the "Travelgate" case. "The independent counsel has concluded that the evidence was insufficient to prove that ... Mrs. Clinton made any knowingly false statements, committed perjury or obstructed justice in this matter," Ray said. While that's hardly a resounding proclamation of Clinton's innocence, the first lady no doubt will gladly accept it, as her Senate hopes could have been seriously hobbled by a trial.

Big, green teasing machine
Teamsters boss James P. Hoffa remains content to withhold his endorsement and continue to lead on Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. In a highly hyped press conference, the labor leader praised Nader's stands on globalization, knocked Gore and Bush for being blind to workers issues and then endorsed ... nobody. "No one in the political arena speaks stronger on the issues important to American working families than Ralph Nader," Hoffa declared, but then insisted that he and his union would not yet announce an endorsement. Instead, Hoffa called on the Commission on Presidential Debates to allow Nader and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan to join Bush and Gore in debates.

Poll positions
Presidential race:

  • Bush 49 to Gore 41 (NBC/Wall Street Journal June 14-18).
  • Bush 49 to Gore 45 (CNN/Time June 14-15).
  • Bush 52 to Gore 40 (Voter.com June 11-13).
  • Bush 50 to Gore 40 (Los Angeles Times June 8-13).
  • Bush 47 to Gore 39 (Zogby June 9-12).
  • Bush 49 to Gore 45 (ABC News/Washington Post June 8-11).

    On the trail
    Buchanan: Virginia.
    Bush: Alabama.
    Gore: California.
    Nader: Colorado.

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  • Alicia Montgomery

    Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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