Innocent and dead


NOBODY'S likely to see Gary Graham as a choir boy, not after he admitted a violent armed robbery spree that included shootings and pistol whippings when he was only 17.

But nobody saw Gary Graham kill Bobby Lambert outside the Safeway in Houston in May 1981, either, except for a lone witness sitting almost 40 feet away in her car. She couldn't pick Graham's picture out of a photo lineup, but she picked him out of a police lineup the next day, perhaps because his was the only face that appeared in both.

None of the other eyewitnesses were able to identify him; one woman, who stood in the supermarket checkout line next to the killer, says it was definitely not Graham. Yet she was never called to testify at his trial.

Neither were alibi witnesses, perhaps because, as the investigator who worked on the case said, he and the public defender "assumed Gary was guilty from the start."

All of which may soon put Gary Graham, who insists he's no killer, on the list of the questionably executed.

It seems unfair to single out one story, since there are many who are part of the group. Some, like Clarence Brandley, have come close to eating their last meal before being set free. Others, like Jimmy Wingo, are already dead despite doubts cast on their guilt.

A study in the Stanford Law Review several years ago estimated conservatively, based on state admissions of error or the identification of other suspects, that 23 innocent people have been executed in the 20th century in America. The number will surely grow larger as the executions go on.

Who will take responsibility for this? No one. That's clear in a moving new book, a naked examination of conscience called "Dead Man Walking." It was Sister Helen Prejean's decision as a young woman to go to work for the individual she calls "the Executed Criminal," a.k.a. Jesus Christ, that eventually led her to act as a spiritual adviser for inmates and to witness their executions.

She describes a process in which all involved carry out their duties but no one claims the act, from the judges who concentrate on the law, to the guards who shave heads and legs so the current will flow more smoothly, to the electrician who checks the circuits to the chair.

She describes the families of the victims, enraged by her intercession but oddly and unexpectedly unfulfilled by the execution. She describes how the state head of Corrections in Louisiana replies, "Never in a million years," when she asks if he will watch. And yet he oversees what he turns his eyes from, as, Sister Helen says, do we all.

She writes of her first execution: "No smell of burning flesh (the Plexiglas shields witnesses from the smell). No sight of his face (the mask conceals his face, his eyes). And with his jaw strapped shut like that, he could not cry out."

The death penalty was supposed to be a panacea for the worst crime problems of the United States. But it's no deterrent, and it is based not on the cold-bloodedness of the crime, but on color and cash.

Many death row inmates are indigents represented at trial by public defenders so overworked, so incompetent or so convinced of their client's guilt that appeals lawyers find countless mistakes and missed opportunities in the trial record. And a study of the death penalty in one part of Georgia showed that prosecutors sought it in 1 in 3 murders of whites, but that the number dropped to 1 in 17 when the victim was black.

For more than a decade, since he was a teen-ager, Gary Graham has been what Camus once called "a thing waiting to be handled by the executioners." On death row in Texas, the capital-punishment capital of the nation, he waits for June 3, when he is scheduled to die by lethal injection, the 57th person executed in that state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1982.

"Who killed this man?" Sister Helen asks about the first man she saw executed, and she answers as the system would: "Nobody." That's how prosecutors and proponents see it, as though the criminal killed himself by his crimes.

But if Gary Graham, and others like him, are innocent of the crimes that brought them to death row, then that is something else again. Killing a guilty person is called capital punishment. Killing an innocent one can be called a mistake, or it can be called murder. The responsibility is everyone's.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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