Death Penalty Takes Center Stage
By: Alice Kim
On June 22, the state of Texas executed Gary Graham, almost certainly an innocent man. Given Texas’ bloody death penalty record, Graham, who changed his name to Shaka Sankofa, was almost certainly not the only innocent victim ever executed. And he was definitely not the only Texas death row inmate who never got a fair trial.
Yet despite overwhelming evidence of Shaka’s innocence, Texas Gov. George W. Bush insisted that justice was being done – and repeated that he was confident that no innocent person had been executed under his watch.
Millions of Americans aren’t so confident, which is why Shaka’s execution shocked the country.
As the execution approached, thousands took part in protests around the nation. On June 19, the Campaign’s day of action for Shaka, 200 protesters marched to the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas. During his fundraising swing through California for his presidential campaign, Bush’s motorcade was greeted by dozens of protesters chanting, “Stop the Execution of Gary Graham!” And on June 22, 3,000 protesters from Texas and around the country converged on the prison in Huntsville, Texas, where Shaka’s execution was scheduled to take place.
Shaka’s execution made the death penalty a nationwide, front-page issue. And given the increasing questions about the guilt of scores of death row inmates, politicians who support the death penalty are running for cover. Even Bush, the governor of death, was forced to grant his first-ever reprieve to death row inmate Ricky McGinn within minutes of McGinn’s scheduled execution in early June. Bush probably chose McGinn with the expectation that DNA evidence wouldn’t clear him. Results from initial DNA tests conducted by the FBI are said to point to McGinn or a relative as the killer.
Undoubtedly, death penalty supporters will attempt to use these results to bolster their case. But even if the results are definitive, they don’t change the fact that the Texas death penalty system is plagued with racism and injustice.
Since Shaka’s execution, two more Texas death row inmates, Caruthers Alexander and Henry Watkins Skinner, have been granted DNA testing. Northwestern University professor David Protess and his students are currently investigating Skinner’s case. Protess said that Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism would pay for the DNA tests “if the state of Texas is too cheap to determine whether an innocent man is on their death row.” Soon after Protess’ public statement, Gray County District Attorney John Mannon agreed to the DNA tests.
The truth is that both Bush and his opponent in the presidential election, Al Gore, would like nothing better than to avoid any further discussion of the death penalty. But the issue isn’t going away.
Anti-death penalty activists are dogging Bush wherever he makes an appearance. On July 31, the Campaign joined with thousands of others to protest the Republican National Convention. And Gore must not be allowed to rest either. In August, Campaign activists protested at the Democratic National Convention.
A national moratorium on executions is the next step in our struggle. If a national moratorium were currently in place, Shaka Sankofa would be alive today. Now is the time to build on the growing momentum against the death penalty.