Texas Death Row Cases Questioned

Sunday, June 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) — During his presidential campaign, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has expressed confidence in his state's busy death penalty system and said he does not see the need to institute a moratorium as Illinois has done.

But a Chicago Tribune investigation published in Sunday editions found that dozens of inmates have been executed in Texas even though their cases were marred by unreliable evidence, disbarred or suspended defense attorneys and questionable psychiatric testimony.

Among other things, the investigation of the 131 executions during Bush's tenure found that defense attorneys for 40 of the inmates presented just one witness or no evidence at all during the trials' sentencing phase.

Many defense attorneys also failed to present evidence of a defendant's brain damage, low IQ or childhood abuse, the Tribune reported. All are factors that officials in Illinois and many other states consider in pleas to halt an execution.

Defendants in about a third of the Texas cases were represented at trial or initial appeal by an attorney who had been or was later disbarred, suspended or otherwise sanctioned, the report said.

And testimony from fellow inmates also played a role during the guilt or sentencing phase of at least 23 cases in which a defendant was executed under Bush.

In one case, seven jailhouse informants testified against David Wayne Spence at his 1984 trial for his alleged role in a triple slaying in Lake Waco. Several later recanted, adding further questions to a case that already had troubling flaws. But Spence was still executed in 1997.

Use of jailhouse informants in death penalty cases was one of the central problems Illinois Gov. George Ryan cited when he declared the moratorium in Illinois — something he did after a Tribune investigation exposed flaws in the Illinois death penalty system. The governors of Indiana and Maryland have since ordered studies of their death penalty systems, and measures have been proposed in Congress to reform or suspend the federal death penalty.

The death penalty is likely to become part of the presidential campaign between Bush, a Republican, and Democratic Vice President Al Gore. Like Bush, Gore supports the death penalty. However, he has never held an office where he would authorize an execution or grant clemency.

As governor, Bush has the final say on whether a death sentence is carried out, even though most cases were tried long before he took office in 1995. By his own account, Bush is loath to second-guess jury verdicts, and he usually defers to reviewing courts to settle whether the trial was fair.

In individual cases, he can grant clemency — life in prison — upon the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles or grant a one-time, 30-day reprieve. Bush has exercised each power once. He also can order an investigation.

Since reinstating the death penalty in 1976, Texas has executed 218 men and women, far more than any other state and about a third of the country's total. Seven condemned inmates have been exonerated. Bush signed a bill designed to speed the pace of executions in 1995.

Bush declined to be interviewed for the Tribune story. His criminal justice policy director, Johnny Sutton, said the governor views his role in the execution process as that of a ``safety valve.''

``We have a system in place that is very careful and that gives years and years of super due process to make sure that no innocent defendants are executed and that the defendant received a fair trial,'' Sutton told the Tribune. ``We think we have a good criminal justice system in Texas. It's not perfect, but it's one of the best around.''

The Tribune investigation also questioned the use of testimony from experts, including psychiatrists.

Among them was Dr. James Grigson, a Dallas psychiatrist who became known among defense attorneys and the media as ``Dr. Death.'' He testified in 16 cases in which inmates were put to death during the Bush administration.

Grigson was reprimanded twice in the early 1980s by the American Psychiatric Association, then expelled from the group in 1995 because it found his testimony unethical and untrustworthy.

Grigson repeatedly claimed that he could predict that defendants would be violent again even though in many of those cases Grigson never even examined the defendants. He also predicted how dangerous an inmate would be in the future, though he did not examine several of them.

Some jurors say the testimony had a big impact.

``You couldn't help but listen to what he was saying. He's a doctor. He had a lot of influence on what we decided,'' said Myron Grisham, a juror in one case in which Grigson testified. That defendant, David Wayne Stoker, was later executed.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled this kind of psychiatric testimony admissible, but it has been repeatedly criticized by other courts.

In a separate Texas case last week, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a convicted murderer because the psychologist who recommended the sentence testified the man was a danger to society because of his Hispanic heritage.

A review of other cases involving psycholgist Walter Quijano's testimony, ordered by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, found eight other men had been sentenced to death after he gave similar testimony mentioning their ethnic backgrounds, Cornyn said Friday.