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Published on Sunday, July 2, 2000 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Morality Of Capital Punishment Staring Bush Squarely In The Eye
by Sandy Grady
Presidents have run for the job in strange ways. Warren Harding campaigned from his front porch; Harry Truman from the back of a train; Bill Clinton from a bus.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush's route will be the weirdest of all. Dubya, in effect, will campaign from the red brick building known as the Texas Death House.

That might as well be Bush's headquarters. Between now and the Nov. 7 election, Texas is scheduled to execute 15 people, almost one a week. The death penalty, with all its noisy, soul-searching furor, will be Bush's campaign ghost.

Not that Bush is inexperienced: There have been 133 deaths by injection in his five years as governor. And, judging by his confident boast, every victim deserved lights out.

Is Bush running for president as chief executioner? Will his campaign put the death penalty in the dock?

Recently, Gary Graham became the center of one of Texas' most contentious death row melodramas - a morbid scene that will haunt Bush's campaign.

There was an agonizing wait as Graham's lawyers tried desperate appeals all the way to the Supreme Court. Crowds chanted against the death penalty; armed Black Panthers marched; the Rev. Jesse Jackson was a nervous witness. But Graham, convicted of a 1981 shooting on shaky evidence by a lone witness, ran out of luck.

"I die fighting for what I believe," said Graham defiantly, struggling on the gurney. "I'm being lynched. The death penalty is a holocaust for black Americans."

They stuck a needle in Graham and, not long afterward, he was officially dead.

But after Graham - whose TV head shots ironically recall Willie Horton, a black criminal used by Bush's daddy to win office - the parade through Death Valley will nag Bush. He'll be distracted by hecklers, TV pictures of the execution chamber, cartoons of himself in a black hood.

"If it costs me politically," Bush said, "well, it costs me politically."

That, Bush must know, is false bravado. No politician is hurt by frying, hanging or injecting a presumed criminal. Despite growing opposition, capital punishment is still as popular as mom's apple pie.

Think of Bill Clinton a few days before the 1992 New Hampshire primary. He rushed back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man so mentally impaired he asked that the pie served at his last meal be saved for "later on."

Clinton's execution of Rector helped his '92 surge as the Comeback Kid. It signaled that Democrats would no longer be "soft on crime."

But the brouhaha over Graham's fate showed that Bush's role in Texas' death penalty stampede will be far trickier.

The doors swing open to the death chambers, and even advocates worry about what they see. The Gallup Poll says approval of the death penalty has dropped from 80% to 66%, the lowest level in two decades.

I've long been opposed to the death penalty. I doubt that it's a deterrent to crime. I suspect it's racially biased. I don't think the state should be omnipotently taking lives, and I question the system's fairness.

Now those troubling doubts, even for most Americans who support capital punishment, are fueling an overdue debate that may roil Bush's 2000 campaign.

Not moral qualms, but practical questions now gnaw at the death penalty. Does the system work? Are innocent people being snuffed out?

Bush claims, "Not one innocent victim has been executed since I've been governor."

How can Dubya be sure when Texas has a sordid history of matching up poor defendants with lawyers who are drunks, disbarred, inept or snoring during trials? Even 57% of Texans say the innocent have been wrongly executed.

Too much has happened to put Bush on the spot. Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a pro-death-penalty Republican, declared a moratorium on executions after 13 wrongly convicted men were freed from death row.

Virginia Gov. James Gilmore has ordered DNA tests. Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 87 death row inmates have been released. How many more were victims of a shoddy rush to judgment?

Bush may brag that his execution decisions are free of politics. But he's reading the new public mood. Eighteen minutes before he was to be put to death, Ricky McGinn, a mechanic found guilty of raping and killing his stepdaughter, was granted a stay of execution by Bush.

A cynic could ask: DNA testing, or presidential campaigning?

How Bush handles the 15 capital punishment cases facing him will affect his image. In a magazine article, he made fun of Karla Faye Tucker, who in 1998 became the first woman executed in Texas in a century. In a CNN debate, he was seen laughing about another Texas death case.

Bush was carefully somber about Graham's death.

"After considering all of the facts, I am convinced justice is being done," Bush said after the final appeals were denied. "May God bless the victim, the family of the victim, and may God bless Mr. Graham."

It's not easy campaigning from the Texas Death House. Bush's gravitas and humanity will be on trial. So, at last, will be the death penalty.

Sandy Grady is a Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Copyright 2000, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


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