Texecutioner in the White House
by Lily Hughes
Amid outraged protest, George W. Bush has become the next president.
Some of the loudest voices of opposition to him have come from abolitionists. During his five years as governor of Texas, Bush — better known to some as Governor Death — oversaw the execution of 152 people.
Problems of racism, unequal representation and lack of a fair clemency process have plagued the Texas death penalty system. Yet rather than work to correct these problems, Bush was instrumental in greatly expanding the use of the death penalty and restricting appeals. He fought hard against legislation that would have banned executions of juveniles and the mentally retarded. And he vetoed a bill that would have established a public defender system.
When asked about the death penalty in Texas, Bush often repeated the same tired mantra that “everybody who has been put to death in Texas has been granted full access to the law,” and that “everyone who has been put to death has been guilty of the crime charged.”
But a look at some of the executions that Bush allowed just in the last year shows that the opposite is true.
One of the most controversial was that of Gary Graham, also known as Shaka Sankofa, who was executed on June 22. Shaka was 17 years old at the time of the murder for which he was convicted. He was found guilty and sentenced to death on the basis of the testimony of a single eyewitness. There was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime.
But his court-appointed lawyer had a history of incompetence and did nothing to defend Shaka. Shaka’s appeals lawyers later found that there were several eyewitnesses who said that Shaka wasn’t the man they saw commit the murder. But this and other evidence of innocence was never heard in court.
There was a national outcry and media attention focused on Shaka’s case. In the weeks leading up his execution, protests spread across the country, culminating in a 3,000 strong rally outside Huntsville on the night of the execution.
Shaka’s case was only the most prominent of the many injustices of the past year.
Odell Barnes was executed on March 1 despite the fact that evidence in his case was tampered with by the prosecution — and despite a mountain of evidence pointing to his innocence. Bettie Lou Beets, who was convicted of killing her husband, was a victim of lifelong physical abuse. But this and other evidence of extenuating circumstances wasn’t brought up at her trial. Bettie was deaf and brain damaged from childhood beatings when she was executed on February 24. Larry Robison was executed on January 21. Larry was mentally ill, and his family had sought help for him at several hospitals, only to be turned away for lack of health insurance. They were told that Larry could only be admitted if he became violent. When Larry did become violent, he was sent to death row.
Incredibly, Bush didn’t object to or attempt to halt any of these executions.
But his actions have not gone unchallenged. All along the campaign trail, Bush met with questions and protests on the issue of the death penalty. It has become increasingly harder for him to justify his support for the death penalty. And Campaigners will join thousands of others at demonstrations against Bush on Inauguration Day on January 20 — where we’ll tell the Texecutioner what we think.
This issue will not just go away. The first federal execution in nearly 40 years, that of Juan Raul Garza, will come across Bush’s desk soon. Legislation is due to be debated in Congress that calls for a national moratorium.
Now more than ever, we must continue to build a nationwide movement. Unless we want to have a President Death, we have to continue to challenge Bush on his lousy record of unjust executions and to fight for the abolition of the death penalty.