Texas Executes Convicted Murderer in Case Surrounded by Controversy

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gary Graham, declaring, "This is what happens to black men in America," died by lethal injection Thursday night after a protracted last-ditch legal battle and clear evidence of a struggle before he entered the death chamber.

At the end of a sultry, anxious day on which the Texas parole board refused to block his execution, Graham, 36, was put to death at 8:49 p.m. CDT.

He had galvanized international attention with his claim of innocence, which mushroomed into a major political issue in Gov. George W. Bush's campaign for president.

Observed by supporters of his victim and anti-death penalty activists, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Graham entered the room bound by black Velcro wrist restraints, handcuffs and a head restraint that fell loose as he spoke. "It was very obvious from the way he looked that he put up a struggle," an Associated Press pool reporter said.

Graham gave a final rambling, angry statement, insisting he did not kill Bobby Lambert near a Houston supermarket 19 years ago. Facing Lambert's grandson from his gurney, he urged supporters to take his case to an international tribunal, calling his execution a lynching that was "part of the genocide . . . that we as black people have endured in America."

Fixing his gaze on Jackson, Graham finally was injected. One eye remained open after he died.

"Texas is not a safer state tonight," said Jackson afterward. "Ours is not a safer nation. This way of solving problems is barbaric."

Down the street, behind wooden barriers, about 500 protesters received the news as police helicopters roared over head. Although a few members of the group had vowed violence if Graham were executed, the crowd instead seemed stunned and dejected.

Graham's lawyers filed appeals with the U.S. Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, but both turned him down. That led to another appeal to a federal judge in Austin, delaying the execution past its scheduled time of 4 p.m. CDT.

More than two hours after Graham had been scheduled to die, Gov. Bush, looking tired and serious, repeated previous statements he has made about his mandate to uphold the laws of his state, saying the "final determination of guilt or innocence is among the most profound and serious decisions a governor can make."

Bush then reviewed the facts of Graham's case, from the jury's decision in 1981 to his lengthy appeals, and said he supported the decision of the parole board to allow the execution to take place.

"After considering all the facts, I am confident justice is being done," Bush told reporters in Austin. "May God bless the victims and the families of the victims and may God bless Mr. Graham."

Graham, the focus of debate from political candidates, pro- and anti-death penalty activists, celebrities and public officials, had vowed to "fight like hell" en route to his execution. He resisted transportation to the death house Wednesday night so fiercely it took several officers to shackle him.

The U.S. Supreme Court--by a vote of 5 to 4--denied a clemency petition for Graham, submitted immediately after the parole board issued its decision. Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer would have granted a stay, the court said.

Graham's attorneys made a vain effort to halt the execution through a civil suit filed against the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, alleging that the secret practices of the board, which meets behind closed doors, violated Graham's civil rights. Such an appeal has been tried before in a handful of Texas cases--the last time before a 1998 execution--although none has succeeded.

After a U.S. district judge dismissed the suit, officials from the Texas attorney general's office contacted Graham's attorneys and were told they planned no further appeals.

In the late afternoon, a crowd of about 500--including students, black activists, barefoot young people and a few protesters with face paint and masks--milled around outside the imposing brick prison here. Police using crime tape and wooden barriers kept the partisans separated.

Present at the prison were about 20 Ku Klux Klan members. At one point, a group of several hundred, including the New Black Panthers and the New Black Muslims, some carrying registered weapons, strode down a street and gathered at the edge of downtown. Protesters chanted "Free Shaka Sankofa!"--the name Graham adopted to reflect his African heritage. In the late afternoon, some demonstrators rushed a police barricade; police in riot gear arrested six people.

The issue is not likely to disappear: Texas is scheduled to execute an average of one man a week through election day, and a new poll this week showed that public opinion in the state has begun to shift.

On Thursday, the state's 18-member Pardons and Paroles Board, reviewing juror affidavits and an array of other information, voted against a stay of execution, commutation to a life sentence or a pardon for Graham.

The Bush-appointed board voted 14 to 3 against a reprieve, 12 to 5 against commutation to a life sentence and 17 to 0 against a conditional pardon. One member of the 18-member board was on administrative leave and did not vote.

"I can say, unequivocally, that the board's decision not to recommend clemency was reached after a complete and unbiased review of the petition and evidence submitted," board Chairman Gerald Garrett said, hours before the execution was to take place.

In Graham's case, the pro-death penalty Bush has been unable to exercise even his limited powers of clemency. A Texas governor may only grant one 30-day stay of execution in any given case, though the governor may grant commutations of sentences or pardons with the recommendation of the state board. But former Gov. Ann Richards had already granted Graham a 30-day stay, so Bush could not take part in this week's decision, his staff said.

Arrested for the 1981 murder of 53-year-old Lambert, Graham was convicted largely on the testimony of a single eyewitness. Since then, although that woman has emphasized her certainty of Graham's guilt, other witnesses not included in Graham's trial have contradicted her description of the killer.

This week, three of the jurors who condemned Graham to death signed affidavits saying they would have voted differently if they had seen the full range of evidence. Graham pleaded guilty to 10 robberies but said he was innocent of the murder.

In the hours leading to the execution, Graham refused meals but met with Jackson, whom he designated as his spiritual advisor. He also met with his stepmother and Bianca Jagger of Amnesty International.

In the weeks before his death, Graham's fate seemed to crystallize a whole spectrum of controversies. Virtually unreported when it was handed down, the death sentence came in the middle of the bloodiest year in Houston history, with 701 murders. Other Texas death row inmates have been executed this year, but Graham's case had long been adopted by the anti-death row community.

In addition, Graham's sentence soared into public awareness as supporters publicized new doubts about the witness testimony and Bush voiced total confidence in the 134 executions conducted in his 5 1/2-year tenure.

Vice President Al Gore, pro-death penalty but largely silent on the Graham issue in recent weeks, offered a guarded commentary Thursday. During a campaign swing through the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Gore once again refused to comment on the impending Texas execution, adding that he would support governors who temporarily suspend the death penalty if evidence of errors surface.

"I've always assumed that the mistaken convictions were extremely rare. . . ," Gore said. "Even those of us who support the death penalty have an obligation to say, 'Hey, let's make sure this is applied appropriately and correctly.'

"Because if it's not, it's not only the horrible tragedy of somebody innocent being executed, it's also a tragedy to have the person who actually committed the crime still loose and posing a threat to the public."

In Texas, a majority of residents believe the state has executed an innocent person, according to a Scripps Howard poll published Thursday. The survey showed that 57% believe the state has mistakenly put someone to death and 87% believe death row inmates should have free access to DNA tests that might exonerate them.

Yet, like the governor, 73% of those surveyed strongly favor the death penalty. Nationally, support for capital punishment has fallen to 66%, the lowest level in 19 years, according to a separate survey.

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Times staff writer Matea Gold, with the Gore campaign, contributed to this story.

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