- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

LIVINGSTON, Texas Gary Graham is sitting in the eye of the presidential campaign, preparing for the most important four days of his life. That life is scheduled to end Thursday, 36 years after it began.
He sits calmly in his death-row cell here while others lawyers, religious leaders, anti-capital-punishment activists, movie stars, state officials, even a presidential candidate try to untangle a 1981 murder, the one authorities and a Houston jury say he committed.
Graham, who has become articulate and media-smart during his 19 years awaiting death, has always claimed he did not kill Bobby Lambert, who was shot down in a Houston supermarket parking lot on May 13, 1981. More than half a dozen lawyers, all of them serving pro bono, have cited numerous legal reasons why Graham should be given a new trial or have his sentence commuted.
All these pleas including two to the U.S. Supreme Court have been rejected as having no merit. Graham's attorneys have charged that his trial lawyer was incompetent, that several eyewitnesses did not testify, that the prosecution's star witness was "confused" by police and that a gun confiscated when Graham was arrested several days after the killing was not the murder weapon.
Racism has been charged, though Graham, his main accuser Bernadine Skillern and his defense lawyer Ron Mock all are black. Were it not for the serious questions now being raised about the fairness of evidence that has put record numbers on death rows through the nation, Graham's case might not be foremost in the spotlight this week.
If not for the dual facts that Texas Gov. George W. Bush is the expected Republican nominee for president and Texas has executed almost as many men and women as the other states combined 25 already this year; 134 since Mr. Bush took office it could have gone virtually unnoticed.
But many eyes are fixed on this prison-based community, then Huntsville, where the lethal injections are given, and Austin, where state officials wrangle about what to do.
The rhetoric grows louder. Graham, as he did before a stay of execution was granted in 1993 (one of eight), has asked his followers to rally in the streets. Friday, a band of armed black activists picketing the state Republican convention in Houston shoved one delegate, a disabled veteran, to the ground as they marched through the crowds carrying shotguns and AK-47s. One of the New Black Panther Party members told reporters: "This is only the beginning."
Richard Burr, a Houston lawyer who has represented Graham on numerous appeals, said Saturday he is confident that either the governor or the state parole board will give his client another reprieve. He spent much of Thursday and Friday in Austin pleading his case. "I do know that both the governor's staff and the board leaders are aware of the facts. I do not think anybody has made up his mind."
Gerald Garrett, chairman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, says his 18-member group would vote on whether to allow a 120-day reprieve, a commutation or a reduction of Graham's sentence. Mr. Bush cannot act on his own because state law permits only a one-time 30-day reprieve by a governor and that was used up by Gov. Ann Richards in 1993. The governor can, however, act on whatever recommendation emerges from the pardon and parole board.
If the state does not grant clemency or delay, Mr. Burr said, he will file another motion before the nation's highest court.
Meanwhile, both sides continue to speak out stridently. Texas Attorney General John Cronyn says Graham has been given all legal opportunities and reiterated that Graham had shown "incredible brutality and raw violence" in a series of 10 aggravated robberies, beatings and rapes in the 10 days following the Lambert murder.
"Gary Graham is not the innocent victim in this case," said Mr. Cronyn. "He is the convicted murderer. For 19 years, Graham's victims and their families have had to live with the consequences of his crimes. It is now time for them to have the closure and the justice our system provides."
Graham pleaded guilty to the 10 aggravated robberies and was sentenced to concurrent 20-year prison sentences for those crimes.
"He has paid his price," Mr. Burr says. "He has changed himself. He is no longer a street thug. We do not put people to death because they are nasty people unless they kill one of us. That's the threshold, and Gary Graham has not crossed this. The attorney general's call for his death because he's a nasty man is lawless."
Thursday, the woman who testified she saw Graham for more than a minute as he rifled the victim's wallet and ran to his car, strongly reiterated her claim that the man was Graham.
"I saw Mr. Graham shoot and kill Mr. Lambert on that parking lot in 1981," said Mrs. Skillern, now 53. "That has not changed. It's not going to change. I saw him shoot and kill him."
She said she knew that Graham had said she was "sadly mistaken" but snapped, "I am not sadly mistaken. I'm not that poor black woman who's sadly mistaken."
She says she had endured considerable pressure from the media, the black community and even religious leaders to change her story. "I don't know how much more I can do or say to the public. I did not assess his penalty. He put himself in the position where he was in the judicial system."
Danny Glover, the star in the "Lethal Weapon" movies, has called on Mr. Bush and the parole board to intervene. Religious commentator Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, wrote a letter to Mr. Bush, urging intervention.
Graham's trial attorney, Mr. Mock, has been criticized for not putting on several "alibi" witnesses, people who said Graham was elsewhere at the time or that the murderer was of a different physical stature. "First, he never told me about any such witnesses before the trial," Mr. Mock told The Washington Times in an interview in 1994. "And second, he was vague about where he had been, saying he was with a girlfriend and he couldn't remember her name or where she lived."
Asked why he had not introduced any witnesses during the punishment phase of the trial, Mr. Mock said he had been afraid that "all that other stuff" about Graham's criminal record would be revealed to jurors. He said he did not want to "open the door."
Some of it was admitted anyway.
"He wasn't representing a victimized man," said one former prosecutor. "I wouldn't have risked that jury knowing Graham's record, either." Last week, Mr. Mock told the Associated Press he had questioned Mrs. Skillern at length about her eyewitness account of the killing, but could not budge her. "I couldn't even get her to flicker," he said.
Appeals courts, after more than three dozen reviews, have rejected Graham's pleas. Mr. Garrett said he hoped his fellow board members would vote by tomorrow, but said the panel's decision more likely would not be known until Thursday.

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