Grim new evidence of the death penalty’s unjust application has emerged in an exhaustively reported two-part series published June 11 and 12 in the Chicago Tribune , which concluded that since 1995, Texas authorities have “executed dozens of Death Row inmates whose cases were compromised by unreliable evidence, disbarred or suspended defense attorneys, meager defense efforts during sentencing and dubious psychiatric testimony.”
Yet this fresh proof that many defendants who end up on the Lone Star State’s crowded death row are either not guilty of a capital crime or didn’t receive a fair trial isn’t quite as shocking as it once might have been. By now, anyone paying attention knows that law enforcement officials have executed numerous citizens-mostly black and Hispanic men-whose trials and sentencing were so flawed that their guilt remains in doubt.
While Texas has executed more people than any other state, George W. Bush’s domain isn’t alone in its enthusiasm for barbarous human sacrifice. A new study prepared for the Senate Judiciary Committee and released the other day showed that across the country, seven out of every 100 condemned inmates who successfully appeal their sentences are found not guilty on retrial.
What did still seem shocking, however, was the callously nonchalant attitude of Mr. Bush, the man responsible for overseeing the death penalty as governor of Texas during the past five-and-a-half years. The Republican presidential nominee declined to be interviewed by the team of Tribune reporters who prepared the series on judicial murder in Texas, but he responded later with the same bland reassurances he has offered so many times before on this morbid subject.
“I know there are some in the country who don’t care for the death penalty, but I’ve said once and I’ve said a lot, that in every case, we’ve adequately answered innocence or guilt,” the pious governor told the Associated Press after attending church on June 11. “If you’re asking me whether or not as to the innocence or guilt or if people have had adequate access to the courts in Texas, I believe they have. They’ve had full access to the courts. They’ve had full access to a fair trial.”
The Tribune series is long, detailed and mildly complex, so it was probably unreasonable to expect an intelligent response from Mr. Bush, who is notorious for his reluctance to read anything longer than a comic book. (At least he didn’t repeat the disgusting imitation of Karla Faye Tucker’s plea for clemency that he performed last year for a Talk magazine reporter.) Still, it is hard not to wonder what Mr. Bush means when he talks about “a fair trial.” Were the Texas courts fair to the 43 defendants whose lawyers were disbarred either before or after their trials, or otherwise sanctioned for misconduct? Were those courts fair to the 40 defendants whose lawyers presented no evidence (or only one witness) during sentencing? That isn’t what happens, of course, on the rare occasions when someone of Mr. Bush’s wealth and social standing is facing trial for a capital crime.
A spokesman for Mr. Bush observed sagely in an interview with The New York Times that whether to put someone to death is “just a question of the appropriate punishment.” Appropriate punishment is indeed the question Mr. Bush answered with such apparent indifference in more than 130 cases until June 1. That was the day when, under the spotlight of the national media, he exercised for the first time his power to grant a temporary reprieve, to an inmate named Ricky McGinn, so that new evidence can be examined.
Aside from his direct culpability in numerous cases of gross injustice, the problem for Mr. Bush is that this issue again draws attention to his deficiency in what pundits like to call “gravitas.” He appears oddly uncomprehending of this awesome aspect of his otherwise undemanding job, and remarkably ignorant of the American ideal of equality under law. His breezy acceptance of a racially discriminatory system threatens to blot out all those cute pictures of Mr. Bush posing with black and Hispanic children.
And as more voters learn about the lethal travesties carried out under his regime, he will become vulnerable to harsh criticism on an issue that until recently remained outside mainstream political debate. Or he would be vulnerable, if only Al Gore were suddenly courageous enough to speak out about the death penalty. The Vice President is forfeiting an opportunity to distinguish himself not only from Mr. Bush but from President Clinton as well.
Mr. Gore need not oppose capital punishment in principle if that violates his beliefs; he should simply stand up for equal justice under law. He could begin by demanding immediate repeal of the one-year limit on federal death penalty appeals, signed by the President in a very different election climate four years ago.