The Bush Beat

The Press, the Death Penalty, and George W.

One salubrious effect of George Bush’s presidential campaign is the close scrutiny the national media is giving the death penalty in Texas. A month ago, the Washington Post and The New York Times did critical investigative pieces that exposed a flawed system that has in all likelihood executed more than one innocent man. (There may be little doubt about the literal guilt of the two women executed since Bush was sworn into office in 1995, although the cases of Karla Faye Tucker and Bettie Lou Beets both provided ample evidence of the complicating circumstances which in a rational jurisdiction would demand clemency. But Left Fielders, alas, live in Texas.) This month, it’s the Chicago Tribune. Governor Bush, the Tribune reminded its readers, “has expressed confidence in the fairness and accuracy of the death penalty system in Texas, the nation’s busiest executioner.”

Tribune editors assigned three reporters to examine the system Bush is defending. The lead in the two-part story written by Steve Mills, Ken Armstrong, and Douglas Holt describes what the reporters found: “Under Gov. George W. Bush, Texas has 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 testing.” The Tribune examined all 131 executions carried out during Bush’s tenure and found:

At least twenty-nine cases tainted by damaging testimony from a psychiatrist who warned juries that the defendant would commit violent acts in the future. In most cases the psychiatrist had not examined the convicted man.Forty-three cases in which a defendant was represented by an attorney who had been or was later disbarred, suspended, or otherwise sanctioned.Twenty-three cases in which prosecutors used jailhouse informants to convict – testimony so unreliable that some states require judges to warn jurors to view it with skepticism.At least twenty-three cases in which the prosecution used a “visual comparison” of hairs to help win a conviction – evidence also restricted or barred in some jurisdictions.Many convictions achieved by witnesses, “experts,” and lawyers of questionable merit. “They include a forensic scientist who was temporarily released from a psychiatric ward to provide incriminating testimony in a capital case; a pathologist who admitted faking autopsies; a psychiatrist, nicknamed Dr. Death, who was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association; a judge on the state’s highest criminal court who has been reprimanded for lying about his background; and a defense attorney infamous for sleeping during trials.”

“Yet all 131 of these cases,” the Tribune reported, “cleared every hurdle designed to prevent flawed cases from proceeding to execution – from the trial court through appeals to the governor.”

The Governor declined to be interviewed by the Tribune, but his criminal justice policy advisor, Johnny Sutton, said the Texas courts provide “super due process.”

Among the cases the Tribune used to illustrate the failure of the system was that of David Wayne Stoker. Stoker’s lead attorney – who now works at Home Depot – gave up his law license and was sentenced to five years of community service after it was revealed that he forged the signatures of two clients on a settlement check and pocketed the money, less than two years after Stoker’s conviction. The attorney also pleaded guilty to felony charges of forging a judge’s signature on a court order and falsifying a government document.

The informant who testified against Stoker told the jury he had received nothing in exchange for his testimony. The Hale County District Attorney’s office, however, had conveyed to him a $1,000 reward check from Crime Stoppers. Hale Center’s police chief initially testified that there was no crimestoppers group in the town, but later admitted that he was a founding member of the local crimestoppers group. The D.A.’s investigator denied under oath that he had any knowledge of the $1,000 payment. Attorneys working on Stoker’s appeal uncovered bank records that linked the payment to the investigator, and found that charges against the informant were dropped in exchange for his testimony. “Dismissed:” a file note read. “This defendant helped Terry McEachern D.A. solve a murder case.” (For more on McEachern, see “Color of Justice,” page 8.) After Stoker’s conviction, the prosecution hired the notorious James “Dr. Death” Grigson, the Dallas psychologist so popular with prosecutors that he earned $150,000 a year as an expert witness. Grigson, who had not examined Stoker, testified that he was a sociopath who would “absolutely” be violent again.

Stoker was executed on June 16, 1997.

Among the defense lawyers subject to various sanctions was Houston attorney Ronald Mock, a frequent court appointee who lost sixteen of nineteen capital cases. Three of his clients have been executed under Bush. Mock was also the subject of a June 11 New York Times story.

One of Mock’s clients is Gary Graham (Shaka Sankofa). The Times reported that Mock, who boasted that he failed criminal law at Thurgood Marshall Law School, “called no witnesses during the guilt phase of Mr. Graham’s trial, which lasted two days.” Nor did Mock challenge the testimony of the single eyewitness who sealed Graham’s fate. Mock called only two witnesses during the penalty phase, when the attorney’s job is to persuade the jury to spare the client’s life. Two witness who might have helped Graham clear himself were named in the police report and both went to court to tell Mock they would testify. Mock told the Times he was too busy at the time to talk to the witnesses, but that he knew they could not have helped his client. The Times found an earlier affidavit the state had used to deny Graham a new trial. In the affidavit, Mock denied any knowledge of the two witnesses.

Vacationing at Kennebunkport, Bush responded to the Tribune story, telling the Dallas Morning News he “strongly disagrees” that inmates sentenced to death in Texas have been inadequately represented by legal counsel. He insisted that the state’s courts ensure a fair proceeding. “We have a court system that makes sure that that’s the case,” Bush said.

Graham is scheduled to die June 22.

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Published at 12:00 am CST