Bush again defends executions

Friday, June 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

'I'm going to uphold the law,' he says

AUSTIN – As he sat in his reception room Thursday at the Capitol, waiting for the parole board's decision on inmate Gary Graham's fate, a subdued Gov. George W. Bush considered the weighty responsibilities of office.

"Listen, I understand the emotionality of the death penalty case," he told a small group of journalists at midmorning, arranging himself on one of the Victorian chairs just outside his second-floor office.

"But I'm going to uphold the law," he said. "I was sworn to uphold the law. That's my job."

Since being sworn in as governor in January 1995, Mr. Bush had presided over 134 executions, the first one the night of his inauguration.

Thursday's was 135.

By nightfall, when he emerged stone-faced from his office to deliver a final statement on Mr. Graham's impending execution, the governor spoke in a solemn monotone, as if wrung out by the pressure and emotion of the day.

"I recognize that there are good people who oppose the death penalty. I have heard their message and I respect their heart-felt point of view," he said, his hands clasped on the podium as he read the words.

"Over the last 19 years, Mr. Graham's case has been reviewed more than 20 times by state and federal courts," he said. "Thirty-three judges have heard and found his numerous claims to be without merit."

Outside, demonstrators were amassing in front of the Governor's Mansion nearby, waving signs and chanting.

Thursday was a scheduled workday for Mr. Bush, a periodic opportunity for the governor to catch up on state business amid the rigors of his presidential campaign schedule.

Arriving at the Capitol shortly before 8 a.m., he checked mail, dictated some letters and then had his first of many conversations about the Graham case with his general counsel, Margaret Wilson.

"Most governors can literally stop an execution, I think," he told a covey of political journalists later. "But in Texas, that's not the case."

Under Texas law, Mr. Bush could act only if the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended that the execution be delayed or the death sentence commuted.

Within hours, he would get word that the board had ruled against Mr. Graham. Though there would be last-minute appeals stretching into early evening, the courts would eventually rule against Mr. Graham and the execution would be carried out as scheduled 200 miles away.

Demonstrators had shadowed Mr. Bush's three-day campaign tour of the West Coast earlier in the week, interrupting a fund-raiser and calling for a moratorium on executions in Texas.

Political analysts say Mr. Bush's handling of the furor over how the death penalty is meted out in Texas is a window into his personality, giving voters a preview of the way he might deal with the nation's toughest public policy decisions if he wins the White House.

"Someday, he might have to push a button that doesn't just [take the life of] an individual but says, 'We are at war,''' said Marc Landy, chairman of Boston College's political science department. "The issue with Bush is not 'does he have the guts to do it' but 'is he a judicious, thoughtful, mature leader?'"

The Graham case was not the first high-profile death case of Mr. Bush's administration. Two years ago, national attention was riveted on Texas with the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, an ax murderer who found religion and redemption in prison.

Nor would Thursday be the last execution under Mr. Bush. The state of Texas is scheduled to execute an average of one man a week through Election Day, creating a presidential campaign issue that won't go away for the Texas governor.