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Despite records, Bush denies mentally retarded executed

Despite records, Bush denies mentally retarded executed
By JOHN W. GONZALEZ and POLLY ROSS HUGHES
The Houston Chronicle
August 10, 2000
Web posted at: 11:29 AM EDT (1529 GMT)

OXNARD, Calif. (The Houston Chronicle) -- Gov. George W. Bush claimed Wednesday that Texas doesn't execute mentally retarded killers, although at least five such convicts have been put to death in recent years.

The comment came as the GOP presidential nominee was campaigning in California, hours before two Texas inmates were executed. One of the inmates, Oliver D. Cruz, was described as mentally retarded, though that conclusion was challenged by prosecutors earlier this week.

Answering news media questions upon his arrival from Texas, Bush indicated that justice was being served with the executions of Cruz and a second inmate, Brian Roberson. But when told that several states have banned the execution of mentally retarded inmates, Bush said, "So do we, in Texas."

However, no ban has been approved by Texas lawmakers, although they tried as recently as 1999. Bush opposed that bill.

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Constraints in existing law, which Bush cited as safeguards, failed to prevent the execution of five mentally retarded inmates since 1984 -- six, according to those who argue that Cruz was retarded.

"For anybody tried in the state of Texas, mental capacity is a factor, not only during the trial phase but during the appellate phase," Bush said. " ... In all cases, mental competency is a factor in Texas law."

Queried about his opposition to the 1999 bill to ban executions of the retarded, Bush insisted Texas' current law is adequate. And that's the point he was trying to make when he made his controversial remark, an aide said.

"Texas law has many safeguards in place to prevent someone who is not competent from even going to trial, much less being executed," said campaign spokesman Scott McClellan, adding that at least five laws come into play in such cases.

"Even if one juror has reasonable doubts about the defendant's mental ability to form the intent to commit a crime, then that person must be acquitted," he noted.

Wednesday night's execution of Cruz drew more than the usual attention on Texas' death chamber, the busiest in the nation. That is in part because of the debate over executing people with mental retardation and because of Bush's bid for the presidency, which has put his positions on crime and punishment under heavy scrutiny.

Bush's discussion with reporters on the topic ended as he headed to a campaign event, and he wasn't immediately available to elaborate. The candidate was making a train tour of portions of California.

Houston Democrat Sen. Rodney Ellis was author of the bill last year that would have banned the execution of inmates with an IQ of 65 or lower. Ellis said in an interview Wednesday that Bush told him at the time, "I think current law is fine."

Although the bill passed the Texas Senate, 22-8, it died in a House committee.

Ellis said he plans to reintroduce the bill next spring to ban the execution of anyone with an IQ of 70 or lower and to make it retroactive to include those on death row now. If passed, Texas would join 12 other states in such bans.

Nationwide, 34 mentally retarded offenders with IQs of 70 or lower have been executed since April 5, 1984, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Of those, five were in Texas, not counting Cruz.

Terry Washington, a 33-year-old black man, was executed during Bush's administration. Another mentally retarded offender, Mario Marquez, was executed roughly 12 hours before Bush was sworn in as governor on Jan. 17, 1995.

Evidence of Marquez's retardation was not even allowed to be presented to the jury. It took a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision to force Texas courts to allow presentation of mitigating evidence.

In the case of Washington, whose IQ was thought to range between 58 and 69, he was executed on May 6, 1997. He was convicted in the murder of Beatrice Huling, 29, a night manager at the restaurant where he worked as a dishwasher. He tied her up with apron strings, tortured her with a knife and then stabbed her 85 times.

Death penalty supporters argue that the Supreme Court has made it clear that the issue is whether a person is mentally competent to understand the crime and punishment. As to whether it is moral to execute mentally retarded people, Dianne Clements, head of the victims' rights group Justice for All, responds, "The moral standard is don't rape and murder people."



RELATED STORY:
Texas executes man said to be mentally retarded


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