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Texas Execution: Parole Board to Decide Fate of Gary Graham; Bush Ignores Political Implications; Americans Rethinking the Death Penalty

Aired June 22, 2000 - 2:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles is expected to have an announcement in about 30 minutes on the fate of death row inmate Gary Graham. Yesterday, Graham was moved against his will to the state prison in Huntsville where he's scheduled to die by lethal injection in about five hours. Officials tell us Graham is refusing food, but has requested coffee.

Some folks are asking, though, why all the attention? As you may have heard, there are questions about the fairness of Graham's trial, but also it's an election year. And as Texas governor, presidential candidate George W. Bush has presided over a high number of executions -- 134 of them. This at a time when support for capital punishment appears to be dropping nationwide, and that's partly due to fears that innocent people are being put to death. A recent study turned up legal flaws in 70 percent of death penalty trials.

It is against this backdrop that events are playing out in the Texas capital of Austin and the prison in Huntsville.

Let's begin in Huntsville with CNN's Charles Zewe -- Charles.

CHARLES ZEWE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, things starting to get a little bit more heated not only in terms of the weather, but in terms of protests here in Huntsville as the execution countdown continues. We're expecting word from the state pardons board within this hour about whether they will grant clemency or some sort of stay to Gary Graham.

Graham has been meeting with his spiritual adviser in a holding cell right off the death chamber where he is due to die by lethal injection at 7:00 Eastern time, 6:00 Central time tonight.

Now, Graham was moved to that holding cell early last night. He was taken off death row by a prison team. He has said all along that he will not go peacefully to his death, that he would resist violently. And he did just that last night when they tried to handcuff him. Prison officials say they ended up having to subdue him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GLEN CASTLEBURY, TEXAS DEPT. OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE: He did resist the efforts to be moved. And the cell extraction team did do their routine use of force to move him into the van for the transport and remove him from the van here at Huntsville and to secure him in his cell.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZEWE: Prison spokesman Glen Castlebury describing what went on. No one was injured there and Graham put up no further resistance as he was put into the holding cell near the death chamber.

Meanwhile, his visitors today included the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Bianca Jagger of Amnesty International, along with his mother. They spent almost 30 to 40 minutes with Graham this afternoon, Jackson telling reporters later that he found Graham remarkably upbeat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REV. JESSE JACKSON, RAINBOW COALITION: As we talked with him today and had prayer with him, he was amazingly upbeat. There were no tears shed. He had a sense of inner peace. He feels that he has been used as a kind of change agent in order to expose the system. With every passing hour that the drama builds to it, whether he will be able to live or die, there's mass education around the world about what is happening in Texas.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZEWE: Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Protesters are starting to grow in terms of numbers. Pro- and anti-death penalty groups are expected to mass here as execution time approaches later.

Graham's lawyers, by the way, are expected, once the pardons board makes its decision, to possibly file a last-minute appeal with the United States Supreme Court. Of course, that depends on what the pardon board decides. A decision is imminent.

Charles Zewe, CNN, live, Huntsville, Texas.

WATERS: Charles, I heard you report earlier that Gary Graham has been through this five times before. Has he ever come this close before? And would that explain the short period of violence?

ZEWE: Well, there's a number of things at work here, Lou. He has ordered five last meals. He has not ordered a last meal here. He's only had two cups of coffee and he has turned down food since being put in a holding cell.

This whole atmosphere surrounding this execution has to do with a lot of things: It has to do with the national reexamination of capital punishment and questions about whether it is being fairly administered, according to the latest studies that we've reported about, the Columbia study chief among them, questions about whether Graham himself received adequate counsel, whether his lawyer was up to the task here in defending him, questions about whether he's innocent, whether he should have been convicted on the strength of the testimony of a single eyewitness.

And then there is politics. George Bush, who has presided over 134 executions since becoming governor 5 1/2 years ago, has said that only guilty people are executed in Texas. Critics of that say there are substantial questions about whether this death row inmate is indeed guilty. And that has -- all of that has combined to really boil the emotions in this case.

WATERS: All right, Charles Zewe. We'll be hearing from you within the next few minutes. We're expecting that decision to be handed down by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Natalie, what's next?

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, as we've pointed out, this case could have political implications for Governor Bush. As recently as yesterday, the governor said his concern in the case is the law, not his political fortunes.

CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley has the latest from outside the governor's mansion in Austin -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, the governor returned home here last night after a three-day swing through California. He, of course, was asked repeatedly along the campaign trail how he was deliberating this case. He said, I am deliberating it like any other case that comes across my desk about the death penalty. He was asked what he may or may not decide. He said he would await what the Parole and Pardons Board had to say.

Bush was up and out of the governor's mansion this morning, headed to the statehouse where we were told he had planned to meet, have a coffee with regional reporters, a rather routine thing that he has done while governor. Then, too, Bush was also expected to meet with his chief counsel whom he has been talking to in recent days about this case.

Bush has emphasized, as have others, that he cannot in this particular case grant a 30-day reprieve as he did 19 days ago for another prisoner. They point out that Ann Richards, then governor in 1993, gave a reprieve in this case and that Bush, under Texas law, as they see it, is not allowed to give one. What this means is that, at this point, Bush's sole chance to affect this case is to either veto or go along with what the parole board says, which, as you mentioned, we'll hear in about a half hour or so -- Natalie.

ALLEN: All right, Candy Crowley in Austin.

And now to Lou.

WATERS: We should note that in supporting capital punishment, Bush is far from alone among political leaders. His chief rival, Vice President Gore, is also a death penalty backer. Still, it's becoming an issue.

CNN's Bill Schneider joins us now from Washington. What are the political implications of this Graham case on the presidential race, Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, of course, as you say, both Bush and Gore are supporters of the death penalty. And Gore has not been very outspoken on this issue, in large part because the death penalty became a symbolic issue for New Democrats. You may remember, back in 1988, Michael Dukakis was widely criticized because of his opposition to the death penalty. He was depicted by Republicans as outside the mainstream.

So that when Bill Clinton ran for president as a New Democrat in 1992, he made it clear that he supported the death penalty. And as governor of Arkansas, he enforced it during the campaign to make it clear. And Gore joined President Clinton in his support for the death penalty. So Gore does not want to be too outspoken on this issue because it's gotten so many Democrats in trouble in the past.

WATERS: It seems the crux of the argument, if there is one, between Gore and Bush now is the statements by Bush that no innocent person has been executed in Texas. I'm referring now to a recent poll where 57 percent of Texans believe their state has put an innocent man to death. And it's a matter of degrees now in the discussion, Al Gore coming out for the first time and making his points on all this.

SCHNEIDER: Well, that's right, Lou. The politics of the death penalty are changing in an interesting way. For 30 years, from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s, support for the death penalty grew stronger and stronger because there was a wave of crime in the United States and Americans were very angry. It reached the peek of 80 percent support in 1994, but then something interesting happened. Over the past five years, support for the death penalty has, for the first time in decades, begun to decline.

Now, two-thirds of Americans still continue to support the death penalty, but this is the first time we've seen a turnaround. Doubts are rising because of the DNA evidence that's been emerging.

In Illinois, for instance, a larger number of people were released from death row because of new evidence than were executed over the past decade. So the Republican governor of Illinois, who is also the Bush chairman in Illinois, has put a moratorium on any further executions.

Americans are rethinking the death penalty. The question is, are the presidential candidates? And there's no indication on either Democratic or Republican side that that's happening.

WATERS: Is there a win for Bush here? Is there a political calculation about this decision today by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles?

SCHNEIDER: Well, clearly he would be on the spot if the Texas Board of Pardons recommends that the condemned man be given a reprieve or a new trial or a pardon. Then, of course, it would be up to Bush to either accept or reject their recommendation. If, as most people suspect, they recommend going ahead with the execution, then Bush's argument is that there's really nothing under the law that he can do except allow it to be carried out, because he believes that since the man has already been given a 30-day reprieve some seven years ago, that he cannot give another reprieve. And his argument is that he has to enforce the law.

I imagine that most people would understand that. It's just a peculiarity of Texas law that the governor really has -- is not supposed to have any discretion in that case, although death penalty opponents argue that Bush could still go ahead and give the reprieve.

WATERS: Well, we'll have some answers to some of these questions within a few minutes when the Texas Board hands down its decision. We'll talk to you again, Bill Schneider, our senior political analyst from Washington.

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