Published on Thursday, June 22, 2000 in the Houston Chronicle
Execution Day In Texas:
Time arrives for Graham
by Kathy Walt
AUSTIN -- Texas finds itself center stage again, awash in an international spotlight as the state prepares to carry out its 222nd execution since the death penalty resumed in 1982.

The main character this time is Gary Graham, a 7th-grade dropout who has parlayed what originally was a capital murder case so unremarkable it got virtually no media coverage into one of the most contentious and highly publicized cases in recent history.

"I happen to think we live in a rather fine place, and I think that Texas is being showcased by some for political reasons as not such a fine place," Lt. Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday. "I will continue to defend Texas' honor in every way that I can."

His comments came at an unprecedented news conference that he and Attorney General John Cornyn called to stem what they contend is a misinformation campaign waged by Graham's attorneys and supporters who insist Graham is innocent.

"I personally felt it was important for us to be able to explain, again, what type of super due process that criminal defendants are entitled to and in fact receive -- and in fact Mr. Graham has received -- in reviewing their cases," Cornyn said.

Graham's execution date -- his eighth in 19 years -- comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of the death penalty partly because of presidential politics and Gov. George W. Bush's assertion that Texas has never put to death an innocent person.

Bush, the presumed Republican nominee for president, was campaigning in California early Wednesday but returned to Texas later in the day so that he, rather than Perry, would take responsibility for the decision on Graham's fate should parole officials recommend leniency.

Bush's likely opponent, Vice President Al Gore, stayed at arm's length from the death penalty debate in Texas.

Convicted of capital murder in the shooting death of Bobby Grant Lambert in a Houston supermarket parking lot, Graham was 17 when he arrived on death row in 1981. The next year, Texas carried out its first execution since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Sometime Wednesday night or today, Graham was to be moved from death row at the Terrell Unit in Livingston to the Huntsville "Walls" Unit, where the death chamber is located. Prison officials do not divulge the time or the route they will take when transporting prisoners.

Neither of Graham's attorneys is expected to be in Huntsville if Graham is put to death tonight. Houston attorney Jack Zimmermann said his client told him Tuesday to stay in the city and work on the case.

On Wednesday, Graham met with family, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, his attorneys and a Muslim minister at the Terrell Unit, as the 18 members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles weighed his fate.

Their deliberations -- as in every death penalty case the board has reviewed -- were carried out behind closed doors.

"That is disgusting that the board meets privately to make decisions that are so public," said Jackson.

In addition to Jackson, several celebrities, including Bianca Jagger of Amnesty International USA and actor Danny Glover, have campaigned for Graham. Jackson asked Bush to show "some compassion and bold leadership" by sparing Graham.

Under Texas law, Bush cannot grant Graham a 30-day reprieve unless the parole board recommends it because former Gov. Ann Richards took such action in 1993, Cornyn said. The board also could recommend a commutation to a life sentence or a pardon for the crime, Cornyn said.

Board Chairman Gerald Garrett said the decision likely would not be announced until today. The lethal injection is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

Less than a day before he had to cast his vote on Graham, Garrett insisted he had not yet made up his mind.

"Here's where I am: We have the facts, the jury trial, and the multitude of (appeals)," he said. "Most of the issues have already been addressed by courts. My job is to stay focused on the facts. ... My dilemma is the fact of cases vs. all the other issues attached to the case.

"I am not going to make a decision based on the most emotional argument put forward. Misinformation abounds ... and I don't wholeheartedly endorse the notion that the facts are subject to interpretation."

Normally, the board decides a case before execution day. Garrett said he extended the deadline in the Graham case to allow defense attorneys and prosecutors time to supplement their filings.

Harris County District Attorney John B. Holmes sent the board Wednesday a day-old sworn affidavit from a bailiff at Graham's trial. The bailiff reported Graham said after the verdict, "Next time I'm not going to leave any witnesses."

Graham was convicted largely on the testimony from a single eyewitness. Defense attorneys have attacked the testimony of Bernadine Skillern of Houston as unreliable. They claim to have two other eyewitnesses who were working at the store that night -- Ron Hubbard and Sherian Etuk -- who say Graham was not the shooter.

Cornyn and Perry countered Wednesday with documents they say call into question the credibility of those witnesses. The documents included:

· A copy of an affidavit Hubbard gave in 1993 in which he stated the shooter "did not look at me so I could not see his face, but I noticed he was about 5 feet 6 inches."

· A copy of the police offense report in which Etuk told investigators "she could not see his face due to the glass windows and dark parking lot but could tell he was backing away from the complainant with his left hand down to his side (and) his right hand at his waist."

Defense attorney Rob Owen, who once was part of Graham's defense team, dismissed the documents.

Hubbard's and Etuk's accounts are more credible than Skillern's, Owen said, because they testified about the shooter's height, not facial characteristics.

It will be up to the Board of Pardons and Paroles to decide who is more credible. The deadline for the decision is noon.

Chronicle reporters Salatheia Bryant, John W. Gonzalez, Lisa Teachey, Carlos Byars and Patty Reinert contributed to this story.

Copyright 2000 Houston Chronicle