BOSTON-There have been questions all
along about the depth and seriousness of George W. Bush. They have
been brought into sharp focus now by
a surprising issue: the way the death
penalty is administered in Texas. In
his comments on that subject Governor Bush has defined himself, unforgettably, as shallow and callous.
In his five years as governor of
Texas, the state has executed 131
prisoners -- far more than any other
state. Mr. Bush has lately granted a
stay of execution for the first time,
for a DNA test.
In answer to questions about that
record, Governor Bush has repeatedly said that he has no qualms. "I'm
confident," he said last February,
"that every person that has been put
to death in Texas under my watch
has been guilty of the crime charged,
and has had full access to the
That defense of the record ignores
many notorious examples of unfairness in Texas death penalty cases.
Lawyers have been under the influence of cocaine during the trial, or
been drunk or asleep. One court dismissed a complaint about a lawyer
who slept through a trial with the
comment that courts are not "obligated to either constantly monitor trial
counsel's wakefulness or endeavor to
wake counsel should he fall asleep."
This past week The Chicago Tribune published a compelling report on
an investigation of all 131 death
cases in Governor Bush's time. It
made chilling reading.
In one-third of those cases, the
report showed, the lawyer who represented the death penalty defendant
at trial or on appeal had been or was
later disbarred or otherwise sanctioned. In 40 cases the lawyers presented no evidence at all or only one
witness at the sentencing phase of
In 29 cases, the prosecution used
testimony from a psychiatrist who --
based on a hypothetical question
about the defendant's past -- predicted he would commit future violence. Most of those psychiatrists
testified without having examined
the defendant: a practice condemned professionally as unethical.
Other witnesses included one who
was temporarily released from a
psychiatric ward to testify, a pathologist who had admitted faking autopsies and a judge who had been reprimanded for lying about his credentials.
Asked about the Tribune study,
Governor Bush said, "We've adequately answered innocence or
guilt" in every case. The defendants,
he said, "had full access to a fair
There are two ways of understanding that comment. Either Governor
Bush was contemptuous of the facts
or, on a matter of life and death, he
did not care.
At the heart of the problem is the
Texas way of providing lawyers for
defendants too poor to hire their own,
as most are in death cases. There is
no state system. Judges assign lawyers -- often lawyers who have contributed to their election campaigns.
"The State of Texas is a national
embarrassment in the area of indigent legal services," a committee of
the State Bar of Texas says in a
report just approved. Again, Governor Bush has shown no concern
about this reality. He vetoed a bill,
passed by the legislature, that would
have let Texas counties set up a
limited public defender program for
Capital punishment, long favored
by a majority of Americans, has
become a national issue again because of concern about the fairness
of its administration. Gov. George
Ryan of Illinois, a Republican, imposed a moratorium on executions in
that state after 13 men on death row
were shown to be innocent. Pat Robertson and other conservatives have
called for a national moratorium.
The most complete study ever
done of the death penalty process, by
Prof. James S. Liebman and others
at Columbia University, was published the other day. It showed that
two-thirds of death convictions or
sentences were upset on appeal for
such reasons as incompetent defense
lawyers or prosecutors who bent the
To all this George Bush is seemingly indifferent. Or perhaps not entirely. If he were not running for
president, it is doubtful that he would
just now have granted his first stay
of execution. Next week Gary Graham, convicted of murder on the
testimony of a single witness who
said she saw him at night from 30 to
40 feet away, is due to be executed.
Will Governor Bush care?
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company