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Published on Friday, June 16, 2000 in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Timely Challenges To American Justice
by Syl Jones
Powerful and unexpected synergies are emerging from two situations now sharing the domestic stage. The pending execution of Gary Graham, whose murder conviction is being challenged in Texas, and the New York City police boycott of Bruce Springsteen challenge us to decide what kind of people we are and what kind of nation we want to be. How will we respond -- with the arrogance of the New York police auxiliary, the on-again, off-again compassion of George W. Bush, or something more meaningful?

Graham is scheduled to die in Bush's home state of Texas for a murder that, according to ballistic evidence, he could not have committed. Experts testified that a shot fired from his .22-caliber weapon had only six markings on it, while the bullet found at the scene had eight markings. He was identified by a single witness who was, by admission, drinking at the time. Furthermore, evidence that might have cleared Graham was not allowed as testimony during his trial. He now sits on death row hoping that Gov. Bush will soon locate the on-off switch that controls his compassion and order a new trial.

We know that Bush's pity extends to convicted murderers because only a few days ago, he took the unprecedented step of ordering a stay of execution for another Texas murderer. His case, it turns out, is different from Graham's in two crucial ways: He is alleged to have raped and murdered his stepdaughter; and, he is Caucasian while Graham is African-American.

The Graham case and Bush's hedging on it have galvanized anti-capital-punishment groups because it's a quintessential example of what's wrong with the criminal justice system. Graham is nobody's idea of a sweetheart. He's a criminal whose past offenses include numerous armed robbery convictions. The term "dirt bag" is by no means too strong an appellation for a man who's made crime a career and probably ought to be in jail.

But being in jail is one thing. Dying for a crime he could not have committed is quite another. Failure to make the distinction between these two is a serious mistake perpetuated by people like Mark Klaas, who in his zeal to avenge the unfortunate and brutal murder of his daughter Polly has allowed himself to become a pawn of political extremists. Klaas told CNBC correspondent Geraldo Rivera that "everyone knows Graham is guilty . . . because he was convicted by a jury of his peers." He then asserted that "the system is working as it should."

Not quite. Coming as it did just after results of a new study were released confirming a plethora of serious errors in capital punishment cases, Klaas' comments verge on the simple-minded. The report says that the capital punishment system is on the verge of collapse due to miscarriages of justice. And, since no less a personage than Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois has suspended all executions in his state -- flatly claiming that "the system is broken" -- Klaas and his ilk ought to be watching in hushed silence and humility, prayerfully awaiting further information.

That brings us to the New York City Police Department, well-known for its brutalization of people with dark skin and anything but humility. Bruce Springsteen's controversial song "American Skin" revisits the celebrated case of Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant who died in a hail of police gunfire. The cops are so outraged at Springsteen's song that they've asked police groups around the nation to boycott the Boss. This despite Springsteen's benefit performance on behalf of a murdered New York City police officer several years ago.

What does Springsteen's song say? It poses a question which, to my mind, is fundamental: If an innocent, unarmed black man can be shot and murdered by cops who mistook his wallet for a gun -- what does that say about American justice? Springsteen's song does not condemn the police in any way, nor does it suggest that the killing was intentional. "American Skin" is a sad but powerful elegy on behalf of our nation's ideals.

Simply asking the question is enough to set on edge some cops, one of whom had the unmitigated gall to call Springsteen "a dirt bag" in a recent news conference. But negative labels and police boycotts cannot obscure the fact that Springsteen is right to pose the question. With repeated studies from nearly every sector of society showing that African-Americans are far more at risk for death due to injustice than whites, isn't it about time someone had the courage to ask what it all means?

Both the Graham case and the proposed Springsteen boycott are timely challenges to American justice. Will we allow yet another man innocent of a capital crime to die on death row? And should he die -- and someone happen to write a song asking what would have become of Gary Graham if he were white -- will we listen for the artful truth in that question? Or will we condemn the questioner?

Syl Jones, of Minnetonka, is a playwright, journalist and communications consultant.

Copyright 2000 Star Tribune


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