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Published on Wednesday, October 18, 2000 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Death In Texas:
Bush's Pride In Executions Is Grotesque
Al Gore has been tagged a "serial exaggerator" by the George W. Bush campaign. But at least Gore doesn't exaggerate about matters of life and death. Bush plainly does.

Remember that moment in the second debate, when Bush looked at moderator Jim Lehrer, grinned as though he were telling a hilarious joke and asked rhetorically what was going to happen to the three white Texans who dragged a black man to death? "They're going to be put to death," he said. He repeated it several times, gleefully. Gonna kill 'em.

Putting aside for the moment that Bush was wrong about one of the three, who did not receive the death penalty, let's switch to Bush's autobiography. In it he writes that deciding whether to proceed with an execution is "by far the most profound" decision a governor faces. "I get the facts, weigh them thoughtfully and carefully, and decide."

Sounds pretty reasonable. But it's not. The New York Times got hold of Bush's calendar for his years in office. It reveals that to this "most profound" decision, Bush devotes about 15 minutes. He could do it on his coffee break.

One might argue that it doesn't matter at that stage; maybe the process has so thoroughly vetted each case before it gets to Bush that his thoughtful and careful decisions require only a dozen and a quarter minutes.

But it does matter, because at every point along the Texas execution process, officials treat the issue just as Bush does, which is with remarkable nonchalance. That's the essence of a report issued Monday by the Texas Defender Service, a legal nonprofit that provides aid to those appealing their death sentences. The service did a comprehensive study of Texas executions and found "a thoroughly flawed system" filled with "racial bias, incompetent counsel and misconduct committed by police officers and prosecutors."

It is, the service said, "a system in desperate need of reform."

This is no bleeding-heart report from the extreme left. Many of the cases the service reviewed have been substantiated by other reporting. Moreover, the service's study is buttressed also by a recent report from the State Bar of Texas charging that Texas' provision of legal services to the poor "is a national embarrassment."

Apart from the widely reported instances of lawyers who snorted cocaine or slept through appeals, the service found 84 cases in which police or prosecutors "deliberately presented false or misleading testimony, concealed exculpatory evidence or used notoriously unreliable evidence from a jailhouse snitch."

In several cases that involved two defendants tried separately for the same murder, the same prosecutors first fingered one man as the shooter, then fingered the second man, resulting in death penalties for both.

On and on the devastating evidence goes against the system of which Bush is so proud, so certain it reliably dispenses justice. Most Texas judges hearing first appeals of death sentences do not even hold hearings. They simply review the documents of the case. In 83 percent of those cases, the judges issued findings that "were identical or virtually identical" to findings pushed by prosecutors.

Al Gore also supports the death penalty, unfortunately. So what this is most about is administrative competence. This chamber of horrors operates under Bush's nose and on his authority, and it is a disgrace. Yet Bush can go on national television to proclaim with pride that they're gonna kill three more of 'em in Texas. As his fellow Texan Molly Ivins would say: Oh, please.

Copyright 2000 Star Tribune


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