Efforts to save Graham intensify

Thursday, June 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

High-profile convict scheduled to be put to death next week

WASHINGTON - As Texas death row inmate Gary Graham's date with the executioner draws nearer, the high-profile campaign by his supporters to secure a new hearing is becoming ever-more impassioned.

With the execution a week away and all judicial avenues apparently exhausted, actor Danny Glover and others who say Mr. Graham is a victim of a flawed criminal justice system called Wednesday on Gov. George W. Bush and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to intervene.

"We have not gotten to the point where Gary has had his day in court,'' said Mr. Glover, best known for appearing in the Lethal Weapon movies. "The question is: What are we afraid of?"

Mr. Glover, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and others who appeared at a Washington news conference argue that Mr. Graham is being victimized by an unfair process, sentenced to death on the basis of one eyewitness account and absent any physical evidence linking him to the crime.

Texas Attorney General John Cornyn rejected the charge, saying in a prepared statement Wednesday: "The people of Texas can be assured that Gary Graham is guilty of capital murder and that he has received the due process our American system guarantees.''

And in Houston, supporters of Mr. Graham's conviction and death sentence planned a news conference Thursday for the lone eyewitness who positively identified him as the killer. They said that Bernadine Skillern stands by her identification of Mr. Graham, 35, who now goes by the name Shaka Sankofa, as the man who killed Bobby Gene Lambert during a 1981 Houston robbery.

Mr. Graham's lawyers contend he was denied adequate representation at trial and that the courts have never heard information from several witnesses who could clear him.

"Gary Graham has tremendous evidence of innocence that should have been heard by some court, somewhere,'' said Elaine Jones, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, calling for a 120-day reprieve to allow a new evidentiary hearing. "The time is running out on his opportunity to be heard.''

Lawyers in Houston have petitioned the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend that Mr. Bush delay the execution for 120 days to allow for a full-scale hearing. If that bid fails, they have said they plan a last-ditch plea to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected Mr. Graham's last appeal earlier this year.

Mr. Graham has had a full hearing in court, the attorney general said. "Evidence from all such witnesses that Gary Graham has produced since the trial, years afterward, has been considered by the courts and found to be not credible,'' Mr. Cornyn said, adding that Mr. Graham has "had at least 20 appeals, and his claims have been heard and rejected by at least 33 different judges.''

While Mr. Graham's supporters called on Mr. Bush to intervene, a spokesman for the governor noted that the inmate already has received a one-time-only 30-day stay in 1993 from Gov. Ann Richards.

"The parole board and the governor's office will be carefully reviewing the case over the next few days,'' said Bush spokesman Michael Jones. "Obviously, the governor will take any recommendation from the parole board very seriously.''

The 18-member board, comprised of Bush appointees, has several options, among them recommending to the governor that the execution be carried out; that the inmate be pardoned or the death sentence commuted; or suggesting a stay.

The news conference in Houston on Thursday will mark the first public statement by Ms. Skillern about the case in seven years. She has reaffirmed her testimony several times in the 19-year-old case.

"She wants to dispel misinformation being circulated about Graham and reaffirm her correct identification of him as the man who committed the crime," said a news release from the law offices of Rusty Hardin, her attorney.

"Ms. Skillern is not an advocate for or against the death penalty," the news release said. "She is tired of people doubting her credibility ... She knows what she saw the night of the shooting and has testified truthfully."

The death penalty has been coming under renewed public scrutiny. Much of that spotlight has shined on Texas, which is the nation's busiest executioner, and Mr. Bush, who is the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting and who has presided over 132 executions.

Staff writer Bruce Nichols in Houston contributed to this report.