Graham Execution protests heat up


Thursday, June 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — There's no question Gary Graham was a street punk responsible for a crime spree 19 years ago. But he insists his weeklong rampage of robbery, rape and theft did not include the fatal shooting of an Arizona man outside a Houston supermarket.

His execution, scheduled for Thursday evening, had drawn exceptional scrutiny, largely because of Republican Gov. George W. Bush's presidential bid, the national re-examination of capital punishment, and questions about the strength of the case against Graham.

The fate of Graham, his court appeals exhausted, rested Thursday with the 18-member Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which could recommend that Bush issue a 120-day reprieve, a commutation or a pardon.

``I'll treat this case no differently than any other case that has come across my desk,'' Bush told the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in Houston late Wednesday. ``I'll ask two questions: Innocence or guilt, and whether this person has had full access to the courts of law.'' The governor appoints the parole board, but is barred by law from halting the execution without a majority nod from the panel. The governor does have the power to grant a one-time 30-day reprieve in death penalty cases, but Graham received one in 1993 from Bush's predecessor, Democrat Ann Richards.

Texas has executed 22 inmates this year and 134 during Bush's 5 1/2 years in office.

Two years ago, Bush told the parole board to review the case of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas because of questions about the slaying for which Lucas was about to die. Lucas' death sentence eventually was commuted to life. And earlier this month, Bush authorized a reprieve for inmate Ricky McGinn pending DNA tests.

He has sent no similar messages about Graham's case.

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

The case has prompted the loudest protests since convicted pickax killer Karla Faye Tucker was executed in 1998, the first woman put to death in Texas since the Civil War era. Death penalty opponents have adopted Graham's claims of innocence and his contention that he was convicted unfairly, primarily because of testimony from a single eyewitness.

``The Gary Graham case is significant because if he is executed ... he will be the case that will be the most frail, the weakest evidence to justify any execution in the past 27 years,'' said Lawrence Marshall, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

Opponents also used the Graham execution to focus on capital punishment in Texas, which by far outpaces other states in executions, and their opposition to Bush, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

``I'm going to uphold the laws of the land,'' Bush said. ``If it costs me politically, it costs me politically.''

Graham, 36, promised to ``fight like hell'' on the trip to the death chamber and urged 10,000 supporters to converge on Huntsville, about 80 miles north of Houston, to protest what he called his legal lynching and assassination.

Attorney General John Cornyn noted that both state and federal courts have reviewed Graham's case.

``Gary Graham has had at least 20 appeals and his claims have been heard and rejected by at least 33 different judges,'' Cornyn said. Graham was 17 when Bobby Lambert, 53, was slain on May 13, 1981.

Graham pleaded guilty to 10 aggravated robberies during the crime spree, but argued that the eyewitness at his trial was mistaken when she identified him as the gunman who struggled with Lambert before shooting him.

The witness, Bernadine Skillern, has been pressured over the years by Graham backers but has never wavered. In an interview Thursday on NBC's ``Today'' show, she reiterated her conviction that it was Graham she saw.

``There was never a doubt in my mind,'' Skillern said. ``Mr. Lambert was killed by Mr. Graham in the parking lot that night. ... There is not one scintilla of doubt in my mind.''

Graham also argues that his lawyer at trial, Ron Mock, was ineffective, but courts have rejected that claim. As for witnesses he wants heard, they initially told police they couldn't identify the killer, and prosecutors said they were not actual eyewitnesses.

Among other things, Mock — who has repeatedly been reprimanded or put on probation or suspension by the bar — rested his case during the guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial without calling any witnesses. But that strategy is not unheard of, and appeals courts have held that it is not necessarily grounds for a new trial.

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 name, description and address he could not remember.

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