GEORGE W. BUSH'S dogged denial of factory defects in the death machinery of Texas invites memories of Lyndon Johnson telling us how we were defoliating the North Vietnamese into target range. In the beginning, one could charitably concede that the two men were merely bullheaded souls, filled with false pride and false missions, trying to persuade us we needed to slaughter some criminals or a whole nation into submission.
Johnson's stubbornness became massacres and suicide battles abroad and dead students at home. Bush's pathological denials have exploded into a time line that makes it easy to depict him, in the political sense, as a serial killer, indiscriminately dispensing with the despised and chuckling over their bodies.
Bush, remember, has gloated about the death penalty in more than just the presidential debates. He is the same Bush who last year ridiculed death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker, whining in mock exaggeration in an interview that Tucker begged, ''Please don't kill me.'' Bush, who has made his Christianity part of his resume, mocked Tucker even though she said she had found Christ.
In Texas, 232 people have been executed since 1973, and more than 450 are on death row. If Texas were a nation, it would rank fifth in the world in executions. Studies, reports, and exhaustive newspaper stories have shown that Texas is so careless in executing its executions that it, like Illinois, should call a moratorium on capital punishment.
In May, The Washington Post wrote how death penalty defendants receive lawyers who are chronically inexperienced, incompetent, and indifferent to the point of sleeping at trials. No matter. Bush said, ''I'm absolutely confident that everybody that has been put to death ... are guilty of the crime charged, and, secondly, they had full access to our courts.''
In June, the Chicago Tribune found that of 131 Texas executions done under Bush, there were 40 cases of the defense presenting no evidence during sentencing, 29 uses of psychiatric practices that have been condemned by the American Psychiatric Association, and 43 where a defendant was represented by a lawyer who was later disbarred or disciplined.
To that investigation, Bush said, ''I've said once and I've said a lot that in every case, we've adequately answered innocence or guilt.'' Bush said all defendents have ''had full access to the courts. They've had full access to a fair trial.''
In June, a Scripps Howard poll found that while 73 percent of Texans supported the death penalty, 57 percent believed that the state has executed innocent defendants. To that poll, Bush said, ''I analyze each case when it comes across my desk, looking at innocence or guilt.... As far as I'm concerned, there has not been one innocent person executed since I've been governor.''
Also in June, a Columbia University study found that two-thirds of death sentences in the United States and 52 percent of those in Texas from 1973 through 1995 were overturned because of bad or suppressed evidence. Bush again was unmoved. ''We have never put an innocent person to death,'' Bush said.
Last week the Fort Worth Star Telegram published a yearlong investigation that found legal services so lacking for low-income death penalty defendants that Texas ''appears to provide a different standard of justice for the poor.'' Also last week, the Texas Defender Service, which tries to defend the poor on death row, said it had found 84 cases where state officials or police presented false, misleading, or highly unreliable testimony. It found 121 cases of psychiatrist testimony based on no or extremely brief examinations of the defendant.
The Defenders Service report found rampant racial disparities. African-Americans make up 23 percent of the murder victims in Texas, but fewer than 1 percent of executions result from the murder of African-Americans. White women are only 1 percent of murder victims, but 34 percent of executions result from killings of white women. Asked if Texas should call a moratorium as Illinois has done, Bush said no. Asked why, he said, ''The reason why is I'm confident that every person that has been put to death under our state has been guilty of the crime charged.''
Such confidence in the face of the evidence borders on the deranged. Three decades ago, a president refused to change course, and it cost thousands of American lives. In two weeks, the nation may elect a president with a similar hubris. If Bush will not change course on the death penalty, there is no telling what he will not change course on if elected president.
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