For Your Consideration: A Tale of Two Death Sentences

I never thought I’d be writing a column praising George W. Bush. Not as a politician, not for political courage. Yes, he was in the same class as I was at Yale, and he always seemed a nice enough fellow the few times our paths crossed, but he was from a very different Yale than mine, believe me. He was Andover, Skull and Bones, the Bush family, privileged white-shoe Republicans, a culture I’d always felt alienated from as a public school English-major nerd.

But in the case of Henry Lee Lucas, a man about to be executed for a crime he clearly didn’t commit, Gov. George Bush, against all odds, against all expectations, against the entire weight of the Texas law-enforcement establishment, against the power and pride and stubbornness of the legendary Texas Rangers who’d made blundering fools of themselves in the case, against-most of all-the kind of political calculation that a Presidential contender customarily defers to in death penalty cases, did the right thing, and prevented the state-sponsored murder of a man innocent of the crime he was to die for.

I know something about the Henry Lee Lucas case; I was one of a number of journalists, certainly not the first, to expose various aspects of the fraudulence of the capital murder conviction Texas was going to execute Henry Lee Lucas for. I even succeeded, in the course of reporting a Vanity Fair story (“Dead Reckoning,” September 1990), in getting Mr. Lucas’ alleged accomplice in the killing, the late Ottis Toole, to recant his phony confession to participation in the crime, to admit that he and Mr. Lucas lied about their culpability to jerk around the gullible Texas Rangers.

But before getting into details of that case, and Governor Bush’s death sentence decision, it might be instructive, for perspective, to compare it with the behavior of another governor faced with another crucial, defining, life-or-death, execution-eve decision in a politically charged moment in his career: Gov. Bill Clinton and the Rickey Ray Rector case.

You remember the Rickey Ray Rector case, don’t you? He was a black man convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Arkansas. Although there seemed to be little doubt he did the deed, the dispute was over the death sentence. In this dispute, Rickey Ray Rector was doubly unfortunate: unfortunate because he was so severely brain damaged (in the shootout that led to his murder conviction) that there was substantial question of whether he could competently participate or formulate a defense at trial or on appeal. There was doubt he even knew the fate he’d been sentenced to. The telling detail is that, when given his last meal before execution, Rickey Ray Rector told his jailer he wanted to save some of his dessert “for later.”

Doubly unfortunate because when his last-ditch death sentence appeal finally reached the desk of then-Gov. Bill Clinton, Mr. Clinton was fighting for his life, in the midst of a bitterly contested New Hampshire primary in which his strategy was to convince the yokels that he was a tough-minded pro-capital-punishment-type Democrat, unafraid to throw the switch. In a perverse way, Rickey Ray Rector was a godsend, a terrific photo op, and Governor Clinton rode it for all it was worth.

He didn’t just refuse to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment (which is all Rickey Ray Rector’s supporters were hoping for), Governor Clinton raced back to Arkansas from New Hampshire to personally sign with a flourish the death warrant for the brain-damaged felon.

And so he sent Rickey Ray Rector to his death. I suppose you could blame this on the Bush family, on Mr. Clinton’s fear that President Bush would make Rickey Ray Rector into Mr. Clinton’s Willie Horton. But it raises a couple of questions: Couldn’t Mr. Clinton have made a speech saying he believed in the death penalty, but cases like Rickey Ray Rector’s bring it into disrepute? He would cheerfully send convicted murderers to their death if they deserved it and were sentient, but the death penalty should be reserved for unambiguous rather than doubtful, messy cases. Perhaps he could have taken that kind of courageous stand and still have survived politically, but he may have been too busy lying about his affair with Gennifer Flowers to take the time.

But let us return to the other governor and the other death sentence, the one Henry Lee Lucas was facing on June 30, the one George W. Bush had to decide on. It was the maddening legacy of one of the all-time strangest episodes in the history of American criminal justice, a tragicomic Kafkaesque saga that was deeply embarrassing to the legendary Texas Rangers, and nearly fatal to the strange dude at the heart of it, Henry Lee Lucas.

Who was Henry? Beneath the lurid fantasy promoted by films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (which bought the Texas Rangers’ fraudulent vision of the case) was a scuzzy, scumbling reality. Henry was a classic bad-luck loser born into sub-white-trash circumstances in backwoods Virginia, to a mother he claimed was a hooker who took him along on tricks. A mother he later killed during a fight back in the late 50′s. Released from a Michigan pen in 1975, he tried and failed to settle down, became a drifter, a Trailways bus station tramp who hooked up with a bad-news character named Ottis Toole, a transvestite arsonist and killer down in Florida, and then began bumming around the South in the early 80′s with Mr. Toole’s niece Becky Powell. In May 1982, the two of them (Henry and the niece) ended up in a strange Flannery O’Connor-like locale near Wichita Falls, Tex., an abandoned chicken ranch that had been converted into a kind of religious commune called the “House of Prayer.”

While living in a converted chicken coop, Henry came under suspicion in the disappearance of Becky Powell and a local woman found burned to death in her cabin. Arrested by the local sheriff, “Hound Dog” Conway, and placed in extremely uncomfortable confinement, naked in an ice-cold cell for weeks, Henry first confessed to murdering the two women (murders he probably did commit) and then went on what might be called a confession spree, confessing first to 73 other killings all over the South (without giving any corroborating details), then, when transferred to the custody of the Texas Rangers, portraying himself as the worst, most prolific serial killer in American history, claiming up to (and sometimes way over) 600 road kills.

Subsequent investigations showed almost all these confessions, except the first two, to be false, concocted out of thin air with the helpful perhaps ignorant complicity of the Texas Rangers and overeager local police departments. But they served Henry’s purposes: He was transferred to a comfortable jail cell with all the amenities, including premium cable channels, while being flown around the country with all the trappings of a touring rock star in a private jet, “taking cases”-offering himself as the solution for long unsolved murders. As long as Henry kept confessing, the Rangers told him, he could postpone indefinitely the one death sentence he’d been given.

Henry’s confession spree served the Texas Rangers’ purposes well, giving the antiquated cowboy-era institution, still a powerful force in Texas politics, the illusion of being on the cutting edge of criminal justice, solving crimes all over America, holding seminars on the bogus science of “serial killer psychology” (which conspicuously failed to psych out Henry Lee’s hoax).

And the confession spree also served the purposes of the families of Henry’s supposed victims, who wanted “closure,” craved the feeling that the inexplicable death of a loved one had been solved, was no longer an open mystery, an open wound.

Finally, it served the purposes of a culture for whom the figure of the serial killer became a useful icon, a scapegoat that allowed America to believe that pervasive evil could be traced back to, could be embodied in, confined, to a few serial-killer monsters rather than multiple disturbingly ordinary citizens turned murderers. Better to believe one figure like Henry responsible for 600 “solved crimes” than 600 individual murderers still on the loose, their appetite whetted by the exoneration Henry’s phony confessions gave them.

So Henry’s confession spree was going swimmingly for several years until Henry ruined it all by getting religion and exposing his own hoax. Actually, he’d gotten religion before he recanted, under the influence of an evangelical social worker in Texas, “Sister Clemmie,” who hooked Henry up with Christian broadcasters who loved to hear Henry tell tall tales about how a satanist cult, the “Hands of Death,” taught him how to kill.

But at a certain point, Henry began confiding to Sister Clemmie that he was faking it. She urged him to come clean, and with her help, along with that of a courageous D.A. in Waco, Vic Feazell; Jim Mattox, a Texas Attorney General; and the parents of a murdered girl, Rob and Joyce Lemons (who didn’t buy Henry’s phony closure of their daughter’s death), they succeeded in exposing the hoax. Exposed what fools the Texas Rangers had been.

The Rangers didn’t take kindly to being made to look like gullible fools; the retaliation against the D.A. and the Attorney General was fierce; it nearly cost them their political careers. All the more reason Governor Bush’s decision to go up against the Rangers was an act of political courage.

As for Henry, his recantation nearly cost him his life. As soon as he stopped confessing, he was sent to death row in Huntsville, Tex., where I interviewed him back in 1990. By that time, his massive confession hoax had been exposed and documented by a special Texas Attorney General’s report, by an epic court hearing in El Paso, by exposés in the Dallas Times Herald , and other newspapers. The murder Henry was scheduled to die for, the so called “Orange Socks” case (the still-unknown victim was found in a highway culvert, her decomposing body distinguishable only by a pair of orange socks) was one of the flimsiest of all Henry’s phony confessions. Without too much trouble, I was able to get Ottis Toole, Henry’s alleged accomplice in that killing, to recant his confession to participation in the orange socks murder in a jailhouse interview.

But in this case, as in almost all Henry’s cases, the truth didn’t seem to matter, the pride of the Texas Rangers mattered more, the wheels of (in)justice ground on, Henry’s appeals ran out and he was due to die unless Governor Bush took the unlikely step of defying the Texas Rangers and much of the Texas law-enforcement establishment, who wanted Henry, a voluble embarrassment, silenced for good.

The circumstances were very similar to Bill Clinton’s Rickey Ray Rector situation: Governor Bush is leading in the pre-primary Presidential polls for the year 2000 election, but to win Republican primaries in particular, a candidate must play to the most extreme elements of the party. Commuting the death sentence of a killer is not politically smart. Henry is not an appealing figure, like that phony penitent Karla Faye Tucker. He probably did kill two people in addition to his mother. But these and his phony confessions to seven other killings he didn’t do had already gotten Henry nine life sentences. He wasn’t going free, he was going to spend the rest of his life in lockup no matter what. Still, few Republican candidates, certainly in Texas, can resist a chance to show they love the death penalty. And I didn’t have the slightest expectation Governor Bush would.

But he did. With the time for Henry’s lethal injection looming, he commuted Henry’s death sentence to life in prison because, he said with cautious understatement, there was “doubt” about his guilt. George W. Bush deserves credit for this, just as Bill Clinton deserves shame for the death of Rickey Ray Rector. Now, maybe if Governor Bush had some extraordinary courage, if he were really a law-and-order man who was serious about not letting murderers go free, Governor Bush would force the Texas Rangers to do something they should have done 10 years ago: to clean up the mess the Lucas hoax had left behind, to start going around to all the police departments in the country they peddled Henry’s confessions to, to all the courts, the prosecutors and the parents who took the Rangers’ word that they’d solved those hundreds of killings, and tell them the harsh truth. Tell them that they were conned by Henry Lee Lucas, the phony serial hoaxer, that the real killers are still at large, that there are hundreds of real murderers running around loose who should be pursued before the Rangers’ fiasco permits them to kill again.