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    George W. shows quite a callous side when he talks about death

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    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000

    TALLAHASSEE -- Last week's mail brought one of those old-folks letters from Barbara Bush asking that we not let the Democrats scare us about her son, George.

    It's not the Democrats who scare me about Bush. It's Bush himself.

    He may be a prince of a fellow in every other respect, but when it comes to the most awesome and dreadful thing that government can do, his callousness is stunning.

    Texas executes more often than any place outside of China, Congo, Iran, Egypt and Taiwan. There have been 145 lethal injections since Bush became governor less than six years ago, 33 this year alone.

    Even people who support the death penalty are concerned by those numbers. They are the product of a system that is so biased toward death, and so heedless of possible innocence, that its highest criminal court winks at defense lawyers sleeping through murder trials. In one such case, the court speculated that maybe the junior lawyer let the senior lawyer sleep to make the jury feel sorry for the defendant.

    Texas' infamous death court, officially the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, also approved of a hack "expert" telling juries that the minority racial status of defendants makes them more dangerous.

    "A person may be condemned to die in Texas in a process that has the integrity of a professional wrestling match," writes legal critic Stephen B. Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, Atlanta.

    The comparison is unfair to wrestling.

    It is true that Bush did not design that system. It is also true that the Texas governor's office is weak, that he cannot even commute a death sentence unless the pardon board asks him to, which is an exceedingly rare event.

    But let's be real. He appoints the board. A word from him, and Karla Faye Tucker might have been spared for her remorse and redemption. Gary Graham might not have died on the word of a single eyewitness that he was the killer she saw at a distance in the dark.

    Bush also has the Legislature's ear. What has it heard from him? That Texas should continue executing the mentally retarded. That it should not modestly improve the pitiful legal defense provided to indigent defendants.

    When a bill was pending to spare those with lifelong clinical histories of retardation, Bush objected that he liked the law "the way it is right now." The Senate passed the bill anyway, 23-7, but it died in the House. When both houses voted to improve legal representation, judges feared losing the power to reward campaign supporters with indigent defense fees, and Bush obliged them by vetoing the bill. He has been eloquently silent on the greatest evil of the Texas system, which is that it leaves everyone's fate to an elected, partisan criminal appeals court whose judges get their jobs by promising the voters more blood and who make excuses for incompetent defense lawyers and unfair trials.

    "The big problem in Texas," said Jim Marcus, a co-author of a Texas Defender Service report issued last week, "is that there is not really a stage in the system where we can be confident that these problems will be exposed and addressed."

    Killing people comes with the job of governor in most Southern states. The best governors, like Florida's LeRoy Collins (who opposed capital punishment) agonized over it, were open to doubt and looked for reasons to commute. Bush spared one confessed serial killer, who was demonstrably in another state on the day of the crime, but insists against all logic that no innocent person can possibly have been executed in Texas. If he actually believes that, he's among a minority of Texans who do.

    Al Gore is giving Bush a free ride, agreeing that the death penalty is a deterrent. (If it were, Texas should have half the murder rate of Massachusetts, not twice.) The real issue, however, is Bush's indifference to miscarriage of justice in the system for which he's presently responsible.

    Consider the second debate, when Gore said the James Byrd lynching proved the need for a hate crimes law, and Bush responded that it didn't.

    "The three men who murdered James Byrd, guess what's going to happen to them? They're going to be put to death. A jury found them guilty, and it's going to be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death. And it's the right cause, so it's the right decision," Bush said.

    Putting all three to death would be quite a feat, since only two were condemned. What was more alarming was how much Bush seemed to be relishing the prospect. Some observers thought he smiled.

    "That ought to have been a disqualifying moment," wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, "one of those debate classics like Jerry Ford denying that Eastern Europe was under the Soviets' thumb or Michael Dukakis reacting to the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife as though he had been asked about the Law of the Seas treaty. The remark shows Bush at his most callow. The subject after all was death."

    How would he do as president? Sleep on it, if you can.

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