Texas Murder Case Turns Into a Major Media Drama : Crime: Gary Graham seeks a new trial based on new evidence. He's got Hollywood, political heavies on his side.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a spring night in 1981, Bobby Grant Lambert, a small-time hustler and con artist, was shot to death in a Houston supermarket parking lot.

His killer was a young black man dressed in a white jacket and black pants. Robbery was the motive. Lambert was a likely target because he had just paid for his groceries with a $100 bill.

The assailant used a .22-caliber pistol, firing one shot into Lambert's chest. When the paramedics arrived four minutes after receiving a call from the store, Lambert was pronounced dead at the scene.

In the world of urban violence, the opening act of this drama is unremarkable. The closing scenes are playing out much differently.

The man convicted of killing Lambert is Gary Graham, who in recent months has become a national lightning rod for opponents of the death penalty. In some circles his case is synonymous with claims of Texas gunslinger justice, of the death penalty run amok, especially when it is leveled against blacks.

Hollywood and political heavies have weighed in on Graham's side. His defenders say that Graham, who was 17 at the time of his arrest in 1981, never had a chance in Texas. They say they have striking new evidence that will prove his innocence.

But so far they have been stymied by a law allowing a convicted felon only 30 days in which to present new evidence of innocence to the court. Under President Clinton's proposed anti-crime bill, petitions could be filed at a later date if a defendant could show that he has new evidence that was previously unavailable.

"This case involves race, juvenile status and innocence," said Rick Halperin, U.S. director of Amnesty International, an organization that has long opposed the death penalty.

"To have one case that embodies three of those issues was almost unbelievable."

Graham's defenders are clamoring for a new trial so that the additional evidence can be brought forth. At this prosecutors scoff, saying Graham's defenders have employed little more than smoke and mirrors. The "new" evidence is a recycling of evidence that was long ago discredited, they say.

Meanwhile, Graham makes headlines with each new execution stay while others on Death Row are routinely put to death with barely a mention.

Visiting days here at the rural Ellis Unit of the Huntsville State Prison have turned into weekly press conferences, with Graham holding forth for networks and publications from around the world. On one recent Wednesday, Graham, displaying the kind of vanity usually reserved for film stars, admonished a photographer not to take a picture while he was talking.

"I didn't like that picture you put of me in USA Today with my mouth open," he scolded an Associated Press photographer.

"He's become a cult figure," Houston prosecutor Roe Wilson said of Graham. "I knew this one was going to be different when they hired a public relations agent. It's a media blitz using sound bite and bumper sticker language."

The Graham story is also the story of two women. One is Susan Dillow, a certified public accountant in Moraga, Calif. Graham is certain he would not be alive today were it not for Dillow, who wandered into his life as an almost reluctant pen pal, only to become his most ardent champion.

The other woman is Bernadine Skillern, an elementary school clerk who testified against Graham all those years ago. Based on the strength of her testimony alone, Graham was found guilty of killing Lambert. In the last six months, she has been portrayed by Graham's supporters as someone who must have been wrong when she fingered Graham.

But Skillern has remained steadfast: Gary Graham was the man she saw kill Lambert in that Safeway parking lot on May 13, 1981.

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Here is what happened that night.

Lambert had only been in town a few days, his personal life having taken a definite turn for the worse. He and his wife had split up the week before in Tucson, and Lambert had driven his van, loaded with most everything he owned, to Houston.

On the night Lambert was killed, he first drove a friend to the airport before pulling into the Safeway lot, intent on doing some quick grocery shopping. He was planning on leaving Houston the next day, or perhaps even that night.

As Lambert made his way through the store, he picked out several items: a pair of gloves, a carton of Raleigh cigarettes, bread, lunch meat, cheese, V-8 juice, milk, Ritz crackers and garbage bags.

Also in the store that night was a woman named Wilma Amos, a delivery truck driver. She saw Lambert as he was examining a pair of gloves. And she also saw a young black man wearing a white jacket and black pants who appeared to be watching Lambert intently.

In the next few minutes, Lambert made his purchases and walked into the parking lot, where that same man approached him from the rear. The man tried to put his hand in Lambert's back pocket. Lambert struggled, moving from side to side to get out of the other man's grasp. Then the man grabbed Lambert and put a gun to his head.

Skillern was watching all this from her car. She honked her horn, causing the assailant to turn toward her. Lambert pulled free, but the assailant turned and fired his pistol. Lambert slumped, grabbing the front of a car next to him.

Daniel Grady was sitting in that car. His wife was inside grocery shopping when he saw the struggle going on between the two men. When the pistol went off, Grady dove for the floorboard of his car. The assailant took off.

Amos was loading groceries in her car when she heard first a commotion and then a shot. She turned and saw the same man she had noticed in the store running toward Gulf Bank Road.

Skillern did more than watch. She started her car and began following the gunman. When the man turned and realized he was being tailed, he broke into a run. Skillern's children, screaming hysterically, begged her to stop because they feared the man would turn and shoot at them.

Meanwhile, Lambert, one-time carnival barker and small-time drug dealer, died near the entrance of the supermarket. Police discovered that Lambert was carrying $6,000 in his back pocket, that several shotguns were stashed in his van, as was a small quantity of marijuana.

Also in the course of their investigation, several people described the assailant. Grady described him as young, black, tall and slim. Skillern described him much the same way, saying he was anywhere from 5-10 to 6 feet tall. Amos, in a written statement soon after the killing, described the height of the man she saw as "medium." One of the Safeway employees, Ron Hubbard, put the height of the gunman at closer to 5 feet 5 inches. Graham is 5 feet 9 inches.

In the days after the shooting, the investigation was making little progress. Then came the break in the case on May 26. The daily log of the investigation contains an entry about a young man named Gary Gram, also known as Kenneth Stokes, being involved in a number of robberies and shootings that seemed to match the method used in the Safeway parking lot.

The next day, Skillern identified Graham in a police line-up. On May 28, 1981, Gary Graham was charged with murder.

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The young man who went to trial in the death of Bobby Lambert was both vicious and cruel, a young drug user who was already a known street punk to police. The day after Lambert was killed, Graham shot a man after beating him with a pistol and then robbing him. On that same day, he used a sawed-off shotgun to rob the driver of a van.

Then he robbed a Cadillac, again using a shotgun, followed by a robbery of a man in a parking lot. During that robbery, Graham threatened to blow his victim's head off.

On May 18, Graham cocked his gun and put it in the mouth of another man he was robbing. He took the wedding ring of a woman standing nearby, touching her breasts as he robbed her. That same night, Graham and another man stole a Mercury Marquis, holding the owner at gunpoint.

And those are only a few of the crimes. In all, Graham was convicted of committing 10 armed robberies in the days after Lambert was shot, although police believe the actual number was more like 18. He shot at least one man.

When he was arrested, Graham was naked in bed. Police were called by a 57-year-old female taxi driver Graham had raped and robbed before he fell asleep. When he was jostled awake, a policeman's pistol was aimed at him.

In his closing arguments in the Lambert murder case, court-appointed defense lawyer Ron Mock tried to convince the jury that no one should be sent to Death Row on the testimony of one witness. Of the major witnesses, only Skillern had been certain that Graham was the gunman. The others called to the stand, including Amos and Grady, could not make a positive identification.

On Oct. 28, 1981, Graham was found guilty of killing Lambert and was given the death penalty. His conviction did not make the front page of the Houston Chronicle.

The years rolled by for Graham. His case was appealed, as are all capital punishment cases in Texas, and upheld. His new court-appointed lawyer, Doug O'Brien, said Graham continued to protest his innocence in the Lambert case, while admitting to the other robberies and shootings. O'Brien said that Graham from the start talked about alibi witnesses that Mock had failed to call during the murder trial. But O'Brien told Graham that a charge of ineffective counsel was well down the appeals process.

That process would go on for seven years before the charge of having poor legal representation would make its way before a judge. Mock, the court-appointed lawyer, testified Graham never had been able to tell him where he had been on the night Lambert was murdered, only giving a hazy description of being somewhere with a girlfriend.

At that 1988 hearing, two witnesses testified on Graham's behalf, saying that on the night of May 13, he had been with them in the alley of a housing project. Two others gave sworn statements saying the same thing.

But they had never made any attempt at the time to tell anyone that Graham had been with them. None of them had even visited Graham in jail while he was awaiting trial, much less called the police. One of the witnesses, William Chambers, said he didn't do anything because no one got in touch with him.

The judge in the case ruled that the testimony of the alibi witnesses was not credible and once again, the case of Gary Graham dropped from sight.

Last January, after another round of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down Graham's plea that he should be allowed a new trial because of his age and abuse he had suffered in his youth. In all probability, that would have been the last major round of the battle except for one seemingly unrelated event: Graham was writing to Susan Dillow in California.

By almost all standards, Dillow is not the kind of person who would have become involved with the likes of Graham. A middle-class mother of three, she was a believer in the death penalty until early last year.

Then Robert Alton Harris went to the gas chamber in San Quentin. As she watched the events in California leading up to Harris' execution, she began to see Harris as someone who was "being paraded around like a chicken we were about ready to kill."

After Harris' execution, Dillow attended her first meeting of Amnesty International. And last June, at an Amnesty meeting in Los Angeles, she heard a speaker make the case that it was impossible to know about Death Row without some form of contact with condemned inmates.

And so, with some reservations, Dillow sent off a letter to an address where she would be matched with a Death Row pen pal. Weeks later, a response came back. The writer was one Gary Graham of Ellis Unit One, Huntsville State Prison, Tex.

On the top of the page was a poem Graham had written. In the body of the letter was a sentence Dillow dismissed out of hand, one in which Graham told her that he had been wrongfully convicted.

The letters went back and forth, one or so a week for the next three months as summer turned to fall. Slowly, Dillow began to think that Graham might, indeed, be telling the truth. She flew to Texas to meet him and then began working to get a private investigator on the case.

The investigator, Charles Ford, began by interviewing the people who swore Graham was with them the night of the murder. He found others who said the gunman in the parking lot was much shorter than Graham.

By April, Dillow could feel the momentum shifting in favor of Graham. On April 9, a large group of anti-death-penalty advocates held a press conference in which the Graham case was characterized as racist and the Texas justice system as bloodthirsty.

A number of film and political luminaries began joining the cause, the most active being actor Danny Glover. At one point Dillow got a call from a woman identifying herself as Marianne Rogers. Only later in the conversation, after the caller mentioned the name Kenny, did Dillow put it together.

"Are you Kenny Rogers' wife?" she asked.

"Estranged," Dillow said the woman replied. "But I'm going to let Kenny know about this. He's just got to do something."

Kenny Rogers has since offered to help raise $250,000 to pay for court costs at a new trial.

At this point, Skillern's life began to change as well, only for the worse. A quiet, dignified woman, Skillern was named by the Graham supporters as the only reason he was in prison, the only person who positively identified him. Overnight, she was transformed from anonymous citizen to a central figure in a growing drama. Eggs were hurled at her home and car. She has been hounded by news crews who have pounded on her door at all hours of the night.

"Because I witnessed a murder by Mr. Graham of Mr. Lambert--I saw him and he saw me--no one has the right to harass and intimidate me," she said recently. Her lawyer, Rusty Hardin, said of Graham's supporters: "They have no idea what forces they may have unleashed."

After months of trying, Dillow, in concert with the Texas Resource Center and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, obtained a copy of the police offense reports that the district attorney's office had until then refused to give them.

And there, they saw a ballistics report they now believe cements their case. It said that the gun Graham was arrested with was not the same one used to kill Lambert.

Wilson, the Houston prosecutor who is handling the case for the state, has spent large chunks of time trying to knock down claims put forward by Graham supporters. Among them:

THE GUN: Although the gun Graham was arrested with was not the same one used to kill Lambert, Wilson noted that Graham could have had more than one gun. There was never any mention of the gun during the guilt-or-innocence phase of Graham's murder trial. If that fact had been brought before the jury, it would have opened the way for the prosecution to introduce all the other robberies and shootings and different weapons Graham used in the days after Lambert was killed. None of that was mentioned in the trial.

NEW ALIBI WITNESSES: Wilson said Graham had his chance on that score five years ago and could not make the case then because the witnesses fell apart under cross-examination.

GRAHAM'S HEIGHT: Graham supporters point to the testimony of then-Safeway employee Hubbard, who put the height of the gunman at 5 feet 5 inches. They also have affidavits from others at the store who say the killer was short. Included in those is the statement of Amos, the woman who first saw the gunman looking at Lambert in the store. She states unequivocally that the killer was no taller than 5-5.

I "am certain Gary Graham is not the man who shot Bobby Lambert," the Amos affidavit said. "Gary Graham is innocent."

Wilson points to the fact that Amos' new statement varies markedly from her testimony at Graham's trial 12 years ago. At the time, she was asked if she got a look at the gunman. Amos replied, "I did, but I forgot how he looked." And later, she said, "I just don't remember the whole thing."

During that trial, she also testified to using the drug Valium that evening and drinking half a fifth of vodka before calling police and identifying herself as a witness. Police later noted she was becoming uncooperative.

O'Brien, Graham's court-appointed lawyer in the 1988 hearing, contends all of this could have been avoided if Graham had had a fair trial in 1981, if all witnesses could have been called, if the case had been properly investigated. Graham supporters point to the affidavit of investigator Mervin West, who worked with Graham's court-appointed lawyers in the 1981 trial. The supposition by the defense team was that the teen-ager was guilty, he said.

"We just did not have time to worry about a guilty client," West said.

But the prosecution has another affidavit from West, one in which he says he is subject to memory failure and confusion because of a heart condition and that his recollection is not to be trusted.

So it goes in the Gary Graham case. On Aug. 17, Graham was granted his third execution stay, one that by Wilson's estimate will buy him at least a year, maybe two.

Mandy Welch, the director of litigation for the Texas Resource Center, said she is hoping for a conditional pardon and a new trial for Graham.

"He did some horrible, horrible things, but he did not commit that murder," she said.

Hardin, Skillern's lawyer, has a decidedly different opinion: "Gary Graham is nothing but a con man."

And Graham. He was sitting in the visitors' section of the jail, smoking a cigarette and drinking a Pepsi. Graham said he was still waiting to prove he was innocent, to prove he didn't kill Bobby Lambert. And if he gets that chance, all the credit will go to Dillow.

"If it weren't for her initiative, I would be dead, and no one would have ever heard of my case."

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