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Politicians step aside on death penalty


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000

This country is executing convicted murderers at a faster rate than ever before. Unfortunately, just as doubting voices, including many on the conservative side of the political spectrum, are getting louder, the politicians and the celebrities jump in and cheapen the debate.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, found himself at the center of the political storm last week as Texas prepared to execute Gary Graham on a single piece of evidence -- the testimony of a lone eyewitness. I don't know if Graham was guilty of murder, but I do know that I could never have sent him to his death on the basis of the evidence. In my mind, there was a reasonable doubt about his innocence, as there now is in the minds of some of the jurors who convicted him 19 years ago.

Bush was helpless to stop the execution without the recommendation of the state board of pardon and parole, which rejected Graham's last-minute pleas. Even so, the governor had the moral authority to speak out on the question of whether Graham received a fair trial. After all, Graham's attorney mounted an incompetent defense. Instead, Bush has shown himself to be shallow and callous and indifferent to reasonable doubt.

The real problem, however, is not Bush's lack of compassion but the nation's terribly flawed death-penalty system. There are many people in prison, including some on death row, for whom DNA testing can prove nothing. They were convicted because of mistaken eye-witness testimony, overzealous prosecutors who withheld exculpatory evidence, incompetent defense lawyers, the testimony of jailhouse snitches and, in some cases, fabricated police evidence. Even the courts have made it more difficult for death-row convicts to present evidence of their innocence.

Yet, Democrats, including many who support the death penalty, are trying to make Bush out as the heartless executioner of an innocent man without having the courage to meet the issue head-on themselves. Some faulted Bush for not calling for a moratorium on executions; others, including political hacks who have become gasbag commentators on the cable television networks, tried to use Graham's execution to raise doubts about Bush's character. Maybe it does.

But the truth is, both Democratic and Republican elected officials are responsible for a system that makes it likely that innocent people have been put to death in the name of justice. At least Bush is not the hypocrite some of his Democratic critics have shown themselves to be on this issue. At the height of last week's political and media frenzy on Gary Graham's fate, I found myself having more respect for the Rev. Pat Robertson and other conservative Republicans than for President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton -- all staunch supporters of the death penalty.

It was a Republican governor, George Ryan of Illinois, who galvanized the forces of doubt when he ordered a moratorium on executions because of his state's "shameful record of convicting innocent people." Since then, Pat Robertson has added his voice to the cause, as have conservative columnist George Will and the National Review, the magazine founded by William F. Buckley.

And what have we heard from the nation's leading Democrats? Bill Clinton, who occupies the nation's premier bully pulpit, has had little to say. He hasn't called for a moratorium on executions at either the state or federal levels. Neither has Al Gore, Bush's Democratic opponent in this year's presidential election. And Hillary Clinton also appears to be dodging the issue. They see no political gain in disturbing the nation's comfort level with executions.

Bill Clinton forfeited the moral ground on this issue years ago for political expediency. In the 1992 presidential election, the then-governor flew back to Arkansas in the middle of the campaign to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a prisoner with severe brain damage. At his last meal, Ray informed the guards who led him to the execution chamber that he wanted to save his dessert to eat later.

Last week, on the day Graham was executed, Al Gore entered the debate for the first time during the campaign, suggesting that Bush wasn't being honest when he said he is confident that none of the 135 convicted murderers executed on his watch as governor was innocent.

"If you are honest about the debate, you have got to acknowledge there are always going to be some small number of errors," Gore said. The vice president added that everyone's goal should be reducing the risk of executing innocent people "down to the virtual zero point."

I'm glad Gore has broken his silence. But I'm still waiting on him to call for a national moratorium on executions and to throw his support behind a Senate bill that would provide new protections against wrongful convictions in capital cases. So far, however, the politically cautious Gore has refused to endorse a bipartisan bill that would, among other things, afford any prisoner the opportunity to prove his innocence through DNA testing where it is relevant. The proposed bill also would require that defendants in capital cases have competent counsel and "access to other forensic and investigatory resources that will permit them to properly explore their claims of innocence."

In short, the legislation sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., would build new safeguards into a scandalously flawed system of capital punishment. So why is the Clinton-Gore administration not leading the charge to get this legislation passed instead of encouraging their surrogates to snipe at Bush?

The answer is obvious: They are political cowards and hypocrites. At least Bush is willing to pay a political price for his wrong-headed defense of the Texas death-penalty system.

Maybe it's time to tell the politicians and the celebrities to butt out and turn the debate back over to George Ryan, Pat Robertson and other conservatives who at least appear to have had an encounter with their conscience.

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