Bush Defends Texas Process in Death Cases
George W. Bush says Texas has “adequately answered innocence or guilt” in its death penalty cases and disagreed with a newspaper report Sunday that dozens of inmates have been executed although their defenses were marred by unreliable evidence, disbarred or suspended defense attorneys and questionable psychiatric testimony.
The Republican presidential contender has expressed confidence in his state’s system of capital punishment and has said he sees no need to institute a moratorium.
“I know there are some in the country who don’t care for the death penalty, but I’ve said once and I’ve said a lot, that in every case, we’ve adequately answered innocence or guilt,” the Texas governor said Sunday.
“If you’re asking me whether or not as to the innocence or guilt or if people have had adequate access to the courts in Texas, I believe they have,” Bush continued. “They’ve had full access to the courts. They’ve had full access to a fair trial.”
A Chicago Tribune investigation of the 131 executions since Bush became governor in 1995 found that defense attorneys for 40 of the inmates presented just one witness or no evidence at all during the trials’ sentencing phase.
Many also failed to present evidence of a defendant’s brain damage, low IQ or childhood abuse, the Tribune reported. All are factors that officials in many other states consider in pleas to halt an execution.
Defendants in about a third of the Texas cases were represented at trial or initial appeal by an attorney who had been or was later disbarred, suspended or otherwise sanctioned, the report says.
And testimony from fellow inmates also played a role during the guilt or sentencing phase of at least 23 cases in which a defendant was executed under Bush.
In one case, seven jailhouse informants testified against David Wayne Spence at his 1984 trial for his alleged role in a triple slaying in Lake Waco. Several later recanted, raising additional questions, but Spence was still executed in 1997.
Use of jailhouse informants in death penalty cases was one of the problems Illinois Gov. George Ryan cited when he declared a moratorium on executions in January. The governors of Indiana and Maryland have since ordered studies of their own systems, and measures have been proposed in Congress to reform or suspend the federal system.
The death penalty is likely to become part of the presidential campaign between Bush, a Republican, and Democratic Vice President Al Gore. Like Bush, Gore supports the death penalty but he has never held an office where he would authorize an execution or grant clemency.
As governor, Bush has the final say on whether a death sentence is carried out, even though most cases were tried long before he took office. By his own account, Bush is loath to second-guess jury verdicts, and he usually defers to reviewing courts to settle whether the trial was fair.
In individual cases, he can grant clemency--life in prison--upon the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles or grant a one-time, 30-day reprieve. Bush has exercised each power once. He issued his first reprieve, for Ricky Nolen McGinn, on June 1. Bush also can order an investigation.
Since reinstating the death penalty in 1976, Texas has executed 218 men and women, far more than any other state and about a third of the country’s total. Seven condemned inmates have been exonerated. Bush signed a bill designed to speed the pace of executions in 1995.
The Tribune investigation also questioned the use of testimony from experts, including psychiatrists. Among them was Dr. James Grigson, a Dallas psychiatrist who testified in 16 cases in which inmates were put to death during the Bush administration.
Grigson was reprimanded twice in the early 1980s by the American Psychiatric Assn., then expelled from the group in 1995 because it found his testimony unethical and untrustworthy.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled this kind of psychiatric testimony admissible, but it has been repeatedly criticized by other courts.
In a separate Texas case last week, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a convicted murderer because the psychologist who recommended the sentence testified that the man was a danger to society because of his Latino heritage.
CAPITAL CASE REVIEW
More than two-thirds of death sentences have been overturned, a study reveals. A1