Texas Inmate Gary Graham Executed

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

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A defiant Gary Graham struggled as he went to his death, insisting he was innocent moments before an execution that presented Gov. George W. Bush with the loudest outcry over capital punishment since he began his run for president.

Graham, 36, received a lethal injection Thursday night for killing a man outside a Houston supermarket in 1981. The state parole board and appeals courts rejected Graham's arguments that he was convicted on shaky evidence from a single eyewitness and that his trial lawyer did a poor job.

Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said he supported the execution, the 135th during his 5 1/2 years in office. He said the case had been reviewed by 33 judges in 19 years.

``Mr. Graham has had full and fair access to state and federal courts,'' Bush said less than an hour before the execution. ``After considering all the facts, I'm confident justice is being done.''

Gary Graham promised to ``fight like hell'' before his death and he did. He resisted coming out of his cell and it took five officers to strap him to a gurney.

``This is what happens to a black man — genocide in America,'' Graham said in the death chamber, almost spitting out and shouting his words. He called for a moratorium on the death penalty in Texas, which leads the nation with 222 executions since capital punishment resumed here in 1982.

``This is nothing more simple than murder, state-sanctioned murder in America,'' Graham barked. ``They know I'm innocent. They won't acknowledge it.''

Last-minute court activity delayed the execution for almost three hours as hundreds of demonstrators ranging from socialists to the Ku Klux Klan waited outside behind barricades and guarded by officers wearing riot gear. There were nine arrests.

Graham was pronounced dead at 8:49 p.m., eight minutes after the lethal drugs began flowing into his arms. Afterward, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, asked by Graham to witness his death, said: ``They are using him as a political sacrifice.''

Graham was convicted of killing 53-year-old Bobby Lambert of Tucson, Ariz., in a holdup outside the supermarket. He pleaded guilty to 10 robberies during a weeklong rampage around the same time but said he was innocent of the murder.

No physical evidence tied Graham to the killing, and ballistics tests showed that the gun he had when he was arrested was not the murder weapon. But the lone witness who identified him, Bernadine Skillern, has never wavered.

Skillern, who was waiting in her car outside the market while her daughter ran inside, saw the holdup from about 30 feet away. She said the lighting in the parking lot was adequate for her to see Graham.

``I don't feel joy and I don't feel sadness,'' she said after the execution. ``I only feel relief. I hope to get back to my privacy, put this incident behind me and now move on.''

Graham also argued that his lawyer during the trial, Ron Mock, should have introduced other witnesses who would say he was not the killer. But those witnesses initially told police they couldn't identify the killer, and prosecutors said they were not actual eyewitnesses.

Mock has said Graham gave him no names of alibi witnesses before the trial. The lawyer said Graham told him only that he had spent the evening with a girlfriend whose description and address he could not remember.

The debate over Graham's case came amid growing questions about the death penalty. Illinois Gov. George Ryan has placed a moratorium on executions, and Bush and Vice President Al Gore have been forced to address the issue as they campaign for president.

Graham's case brought the loudest protests since pickax killer Karla Faye Tucker was executed in 1998, the first woman put to death in Texas since the Civil War era. Bush, dogged recently by Graham demonstrators, said he would treat the case no differently than any other he has considered.

Two years ago, Bush told the parole board to review the case of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas because of questions about Lucas' conviction. His death sentence eventually was commuted to life. This month, Bush granted a condemned man a 30-day reprieve so he could pursue DNA tests.

Bush could not stop Graham's execution because the inmate received a one-time, 30-day gubernatorial reprieve from Bush's predecessor, Ann Richards.

Preceding the 11th-hour legal maneuvers, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected by a 17-3 vote Graham's request for a 120-day reprieve. The 18-member, Bush-appointed panel, with one member absent from the vote, also voted 12-5 against a commuted sentence and 17-0 against a pardon.

A few hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Graham's appeal on a 5-4 vote. Outside the prison, eight people were arrested for breaking through police lines and a juvenile was arrested for assaulting a prison administrator. Other activists burned American flags.

Protests were also held in Austin and as far away as San Francisco and Northampton, Mass.

``By no way are we happy Gary Graham is dead,'' said Lambert's son, Stephen. ``He put himself in that situation. We didn't put him there.''

He rejected the notion that executions offer ``closure'' to families of murder victims.

``It's not over, because my dad's still dead,'' he said.