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Compassionate Leave - of His Senses

The smirk strikes again. Self-styled "compassionate conservative" presidential candidate George W. Bush's mask slipped a bit further today as he added another notch to the handle of his gun. Gary Graham, also known by his chosen Muslim name, Shaka Sankofa, became the 135th victim of Mr. Bush's Texas death machine on June 22, 2000 despite (or perhaps because of) the intense scrutiny of much of the world.

The particular interest in Gary Graham exploded as Bush's dogged support for killing ran headlong into an increasing awareness of dysfunction in the nation's capital punishment system. Assuming he could continue to brush off critics as easily as he has throughout the years of his blood-drenched leadership of the nation's primary killing state, Bush happily campaigned away in California, promising potential supporters a "compassionate capital fund" for neighborhood charities even as ministers, lawyers, state and national officials and thousands of concerned individuals called for his attention to a miscarriage of justice back home.

Graham, imprisoned for a killing committed during an attempted robbery when he was 17 years of age, had steadfastly maintained his innocence of the act. As is the case with young men of color across America, his trial and conviction were a slam dunk, causing not a ripple of interest beyond - and perhaps not even in - the courthouse.

His court-appointed lawyer, as admitted by a member of the defense team years later, assumed the young man was guilty, so didn't risk incurring the wrath of those in authority (who could, of course, provide him future assignments) by working too hard on his indigent client's behalf. Graham was, after all, a bad actor who was accused of a string of robberies and a rape that had occurred around the same time.

Graham admitted the other crimes, apologized and expressed a willingness to take responsibility for them. He insisted, however, that he was not involved in the killing.

There was no physical evidence to connect him to the murder. When arrested, Graham had in his possession a .22 caliber pistol, the same caliber as the one that killed Bobby Lamberts, the victim. However, after testing, the police found that Graham's gun could not have been the murder weapon. Thus, the single piece of evidence that convicted the young man was the testimony of an eyewitness, a woman who saw the crime take place and identified him as the perpetrator.

Done deal. Guilty. Kill him.

Languishing in prison, ultimately for over 18 years, Graham continued to insist that he was an innocent sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit. Sure, sure, the system said. You're innocent. Sure. So are they all.

After unsuccessful appeals, again handled by court appointed counsel, an execution date was set and finally other, more conscientious attorneys took an interest in the case. Their search of the files, evidently the first, provided some astonishing information. For example, the single eyewitness, Ms. Bernardine Skillern, had seen the young man (who fled the scene) from a distance of some 30 or 40 feet, at night, and for a very short period - perhaps a second, perhaps 3 or 4 seconds - through the windshield of her car. The person she described to police was a clean-shaven young black man with a short Afro.

Subsequently invited by police to view an array of photographs to see if she could pick out one who may have been the perpetrator, Skillern picked out a photo of Gary Graham as being a possible, but indicated the killer was darker and had a more narrow face. Shown a line-up later, she again picked out Graham and has since been consistent in her view that he is the man. What was not brought out at the trial, however, nor mentioned in the initial appeals, was the fact that of the original photos Ms. Skillern was shown, the only one depicted who was clean shaven was Graham. In this manner, experts who have studied mistaken eyewitness accounts say, police sometimes subtly suggest the correct answer to the viewer. Then, with that image fresh in her mind, Ms. Skillern was shown a line-up of men in which Graham's was the only face (given the photograph) that she had ever seen before. By this process, psychologists attest, one can gradually feel more certain that the memory is accurate.

Of course, it is entirely possible that Ms. Skillern's identification of Graham is not a suggested memory but an entirely clear and legitimate one. She certainly believes that to be the case.

Another problem, however, that the new attorneys found in the files - one that Graham's court-appointed counsel failed to present in court - is that contrary to the implication of the State's presentation at trial, Ms. Skillern was not the only eyewitness at the scene. Six other people got a clear view of the killer, two of them having a closer view than did Ms. Skillern, and these two have consistently stated, from the time of the commission of the crime to today, that the shooter was not Gary Graham. One of them, in fact, was shown the same line-up Ms. Skillern saw and said that none of the men in it was the perpetrator of the crime.

While two of the others were asked to testify only to establish the events at the scene (and did not identify Graham), the two who clearly saw that the perpetrator was not Graham, have never, despite years-long efforts by dedicated attorneys, been allowed to present their evidence in court.

The mitigating facts having not been presented, these additional eyewitnesses, who are just as certain as Ms. Skillern of the truth of what they've seen, present a damning indictment of the system of justice as practiced in Texas under Governor Bush. Since these facts have come to light, three of the jurors in Graham's trial have come forward, stating that had they been presented with this evidence at trial they could not have found him guilty.

These former jurors have lent their voices to a chorus of well-known national and international figures and regular citizens from across the world calling on Governor Bush to stop the execution and make possible a new trial so that another innocent man will not fall victim to the executioner's zeal.

Bush, taking the position that he had no independent power to act, attempted to lay the responsibility off on his Board of Pardons and Paroles, a body that never meets in public, phones or FAXes in its life-or-death-determining votes and is known for its robotic obeisance to the killing process. What is less known, and growing knowledge of which causes the mask to slip yet further, is that all of the members of this Board are Bush appointees and their willingness to do his bidding is an open secret.

Thus the mantra of the "compassionate" candidate, "I'm confident that every person [who] has been put to death in Texas under my watch has been guilty of the crime charged and has had full access to the courts," particularly given the now-known facts of cases like Gary Graham's, is a cruel mockery of the concept of a properly functioning system of justice. Intentional ignorance, such as is demonstrated here by an aspiring world leader, is said by some to be one of the definitions of evil.

That Gary Graham was tried, convicted and sentenced to death solely on the basis of Ms. Skillern's identification is a tragic example of the ineffectiveness of court-appointed counsel. His conviction is an indictment of a system that appoints ill-prepared and often uncaring lawyers to defend sometimes despised indigents whose lives are at risk.

The appeals process in his case - and in how many others? - is a shameful example of political expedience masquerading as law. Bias in favor of the prosecution, procedures that preclude the admission of exculpatory evidence not introduced at trial and new laws intent on cutting down on avenues of appeal in order to bring 'finality' to troublesome cases like his all conspire against the realization of justice for the Gary Grahams of our era.

Graham's death at the hands of the state of Texas, an act committed brazenly in the face of what is now known about his case, speaks volumes about Mr. Bush's concepts of guilt, justice and "full access to the courts." Bush's obtuseness, his cynical attempts to manipulate public opinion as he coolly snuffs the life out of the poor and disenfranchised, earn him - and us - no honor. Rather, they unmask him for the hard-eyed power-seeker that he is and leave it to us to drape him with much deserved contempt.

His studied abuse of words like compassion only add insult to those who truly understand its meaning.

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