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Death in Texas

1.

In the twenty-first century, a state governor represents the last vestige of the “divine right of kings,” because he has absolute power over life and death—especially when such power is entrusted to politicians motivated more by expediency than by conscience. Faced with a pending execution, no governor wants to appear callous about human life. So governors appoint pardons boards and meet with legal counselors, who take the political heat for controversial cases. All governors claim to agonize over death penalty decisions. All claim to scrutinize every possible angle of the cases of condemned persons facing execution under their watch.

George W. Bush during his six years as governor of Texas presided over 152 executions, more than any other governor in the recent history of the United States. Bush has said: “I take every death penalty case seriously and review each case carefully…. Each case is major because each case is life or death.” In his autobiography, A Charge to Keep (1999), he wrote, “For every death penalty case, [legal counsel] brief[s] me thoroughly, reviews the arguments made by the prosecution and the defense, raises any doubts or problems or questions.” Bush called this a “fail-safe” method for ensuring “due process” and certainty of guilt.

He might have succeeded in bequeathing to history this image of himself as a scrupulously fair-minded governor if the journalist Alan Berlow had not used the Public Information Act to gain access to fifty-seven confidential death penalty memos that Bush’s legal counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, whom President Bush has recently nominated to be attorney general of the United States, presented to him, usually on the very day of execution.1 The reports Gonzales presented could not be more cursory. Take, for example, the case of Terry Washington, a mentally retarded man of thirty-three with the communication skills of a seven-year-old. Washington’s plea for clemency came before Governor Bush on the morning of May 6, 1997. After a thirty-minute briefing by Gonzales, Bush checked “Deny”—just as he had denied twenty-nine other pleas for clemency in his first twenty-eight months as governor.

But Washington’s plea for clemency raised substantial issues, which called for thoughtful, fair-minded consideration, not the least of which was the fact that Washington’s mental handicap had never been presented to the jury that condemned him to death. Gonzales’s legal summary, however, omitted any mention of Washington’s mental limitations as well as the fact that his trial lawyer had failed to enlist the help of a mental health expert to testify on his client’s behalf. When Washington’s postconviction lawyers took on his defense, they researched deeply into his childhood and came up with horrifying evidence of abuse. Terry Washington, along with his ten siblings, had been beaten regularly with whips, water hoses, extension cords, wire hangers, and fan belts. This was mitigation of the strongest kind, but Washington’s jury never heard it. Nor is there any evidence that Gonzales told Bush about it.

Bush wrote in his autobiography that it was not his job to “replace the verdict of a jury unless there are new facts or evidence of which a jury was unaware, or evidence that the trial was somehow unfair”^2. But new information about a mentally retarded man’s battered, abused childhood that his jury never got to hear—wouldn’t that qualify?

When Berlow asked Gonzales directly whether Bush ever read the clemency petitions, he replied that he did so “from time to time.” Instead, Bush seems to have relied on Gonzales’s summaries, and they clearly indicate that Gonzales continuously sided with the prosecutors. One third of his summary of Terry Washington’s case is devoted to a detailed description of the gruesome aspects of the crime, while he fails to mention Washington’s mental limitations and his miserably ineffective defense lawyer. In response to Berlow’s direct question, Gonzales admitted that his conferences with Bush on these cases typically lasted no more than thirty minutes. Berlow confirmed this for himself when he looked at Bush’s appointment calendar for the morning of Washington’s execution and saw a half-hour slot marked “Al G—Execution.”

To distance himself from his legal and moral responsibility for executions, Bush often cited a Texas statute that says a governor may do nothing more than grant a thirty-day reprieve to an inmate unless the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has recommended a broader grant of clemency. But any time he wanted to, Bush could have commuted a sentence or stopped an execution. By the end of his governorship Bush had appointed all eighteen members of the board of pardons. He could easily have ordered a thirty-day reprieve and gotten word to the board that he had doubts about the fairness of a case and wanted an investigation and hearings. But the Texas pardons board has been a farce. In my home state the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Paroles meets and holds hearings. True, they routinely deny clemency, but they at least give the appearance of being a real, working board. The full Texas pardons board never meets to consider a death sentence. A few of them talk to one another on the phone. Sometimes. No one knows whether the clemency appeals are even read. As governor, Bush did nothing to reform the board’s procedures.

In the Henry Lee Lucas case in 1998, Bush showed where the real power lay. He intervened with the Texas pardons board before they had a chance to make a recommendation, and after his intervention, the board handed him the decision he wanted: a 17–1 vote for commutation of Lucas’s death sentence. The Henry Lee Lucas case gained national attention when it came to light that Lucas had been condemned to death for a Texas murder he couldn’t possibly have committed, since he wasn’t in the state at the time. Additionally, it was clear that Lucas would never be a threat to society because he was already serving six life sentences for other murders, which he may or may not have committed, since on a fairly regular basis he confessed falsely to hundreds of murders. Bush pointed out that jurors at his trial “did not know” certain facts that later came to light.

To make sure that he never had to examine death sentences seriously, Governor Bush used a legal tactic similar to the one used by the US Supreme Court to block death row petitioners’ access to constitutional claims. He restricted the standard for clemency so severely that no petitioner could qualify. He stated that since the courts had “thoroughly examined” every obscure detail of a death row petitioner’s claims and found no grounds for injustice, it was not his place to “second-guess” the courts. In his autobiography Bush wrote,

In every [death] case, I would ask: Is there any doubt about this individual’s guilt or innocence? And, have the courts had ample opportunity to review all the legal issues in this case?

But, of course, the courts would already have reviewed and rejected the legal issues of death row petitioners’ cases before they landed on Bush’s desk. As governor, Bush was literally the court of last resort for a condemned man or woman, vested with authority to dispense mercy or withhold it, according to his personal judgment. Unlike the courts, he was not restricted to pure legalities. As far back as 1855, the US Supreme Court saw compassion and mercy as central to the exercise of gubernatorial clemency. This means that governors and their boards are free to consider any basis for mercy: mental handicaps, mental illness, childhood abuse, incompetence of defense counsel, remorse, racial discrimination in juries, signs of rehabilitation.

Not uncommonly, such new mitigating facts come to light only years after the trial, facts that the trial jury has never heard and that appeals courts, following “procedural logic,” routinely refuse to consider. In the commutation of Lucas’s sentence, Bush well knew how to use “new facts” that the trial jury “did not know” to persuade the Texas pardons board to do his bidding. It was not a lengthy, morally complex process. Bush stated his request and his board delivered.

If the jury that sentenced Karla Faye Tucker—another Texan whose death warrant Bush signed—had known of her drug-ridden childhood prostitution, would they have found mitigating circumstances to spare her life? And if, as her jury considered “future dangerousness,” they could have been made aware of the potential for good in her character that would later make her such an exemplary prisoner, would they still have voted to kill her? The jury, deprived of foresight and without thorough investigation into Karla Faye’s childhood, did not have access to these “new facts,” but George W. Bush did. In the Lucas case, when “new facts” presented themselves, Governor Bush requested the Texas pardons board for commutation. When “new facts” in Karla Faye Tucker’s case came to Bush’s attention, he turned away, claiming that he was bound to follow the courts’ decisions.

Berlow writes, “The fact that courts have rejected a defendant’s legal claims arguably places an added burden on a governor—as the conscience of the state…—to conduct a scrupulous review.” How, then, could Bush’s legal counsel, Alberto Gonzales, systematically neglect to provide mitigating evidence or “new facts” that the petitioners’ juries had never heard? For the man who said that the nature of the war on terror “renders obsolete [the Geneva conventions’] strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners” and called the conventions “quaint” when issuing guidelines for the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo, this is not surprising.

2.

Gonzales routinely produced exactly the kind of clemency review his boss wanted—a purely formal exercise, which never seriously entertained the possibility of real clemency for anyone. When Bush left the governor’s office, he had denied clemency in all cases and refused to commute from death to life imprisonment a single death sentence but one—that of Henry Lee Lucas—and that because knowledge of Lucas’s innocence of the murder for which he was about to be killed had become the subject of such national scrutiny that Bush could not afford politically to ignore it. Besides, the Lucas case became public during the 2000 presidential campaign, when Bush had begun to portray himself as a “compassionate conservative.”

By the time Bush had served as governor for a little over five years, he had already presided over the executions of 130 men and one woman. Using the “thirty-minute formula,” the clemency petitions of the men were denied with dispatch, but the plea for clemency by the woman, Karla Faye Tucker, presented a special challenge. By the time Tucker climbed onto Texas’s lethal injection gurney, whispering, “Lord Jesus, help them to find my vein,” her name had become a household word, not only in the United States, but around the world. Larry King’s in-depth interviews with her on CNN made people feel they knew her personally.

Her crime could not have been more brutal. She had killed two people with a pickax as they lay helplessly in bed. But now people were talking about her fate, as arguments for and against clemency for condemned killers crystallized with new intensity.

  1. 1

    See Alan Berlow, “The Texas Clemency Memos,” The Atlantic, July/August 2003.

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