Wednesday, June 21, 2000

There can be no doubt that the current debate swirling around the topic of capital punishment is due in large part to the presidential candidacy of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Not only is Texas the state that has seen the greatest number of executions overall since 1976, 220 all told, but on Mr. Bush’s watch the pace of executions has been brisk. Add to these circumstances that Mr. Bush is one of the protagonists in a presidential campaign that has so far been short on drama.
Still, the fact that presidential politics have raised the profile of capital punishment as an issue does not in and of itself invalidate the fundamental questions now being asked. For those who continue to believe in the death penalty as part of the American judicial system, as the ultimate way to apply justice where innocent life has been horribly taken away, the real question ought to be: Are we as certain as it is possible for imperfect human beings to be that the right person has been convicted?
Absolute certitude is a standard that cannot be met in this world, but there are other standards and safeguards that have to apply to limit human error. It could be argued that this should apply to the entire judicial system, for just as there is no way to bring back an innocent man wrongly executed, there is no way to return years or decades to someone who has been unjustly incarcerated. Still, the death penalty stands in a category of its own, defined by its very finality. Respect for the sanctity of human life demands no less. The study released last week by Columbia University Law School on the application of the death penalty found that in 70 percent of death penalty cases, the conviction was overturned on appeal, which at least suggests that some levels of the judicial system are not working as they should.
What does all this mean for the execution set for tomorrow in Texas of Gary Graham? Graham was convicted 19 years ago of a vicious shotgun murder committed in 1981, in the course of a raw and brutal 10-day crime spree that included rapes and robberies. While having admitted to other crimes, Graham has always denied the murder, for which he was identified by a single eyewitness. That eyewitness, who like Graham is African-American, remains positive that he was the man she saw. There is no DNA evidence providing a magic revelation, but there are other witnesses who were not called at the time of the trial by Graham’s lawyer. This is no clear-cut case, yet questions remain. In any case, Graham is clearly not the kind of man Texans would want back on their streets to threaten others.
The question, then, which Mr. Bush has to ask himself is whether everything has been done to bring to light all the facts of the case if the execution is allowed to proceed tomorrow. Given the margin of error that seems to be besetting death penalty cases, and which has come to light, there is and should be intense scrutiny applied to the case.

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