A Death in Texas

Photo by AP/Wide World

It was unlike anything the town of Huntsville, Texas, pop. 28,356, had seen in 20 years.

By noon last Thursday, with the temperatures climbing into the mid-90s, the downtown streets were deserted, all but a vitamin-supplement store having closed their doors to business. In a vacant lot a few blocks south, a thicket of satellite dishes had sprouted, beaming images of an imposing red-brick edifice called the Walls Prison Unit across the state and beyond, to New York, London, Germany, Italy, Japan. More than 100 reporters had descended on the grounds of Texas’ most notorious prison, along with the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers and a platoon of neo-anarchists. There were over 200 slogan-chanting protesters and an equal number of law-enforcement officers, among them 20 Texas Rangers in crisp white shirts and Stetsons. “More than were at Waco,” one police captain observed.

It was a full-blown international media spectacle, occasioned by an event that in the town of Huntsville has become commonplace, almost banal: the execution by lethal injection of one of Texas’ nearly 500 death-row inmates.

The inmate in this case was Gary Graham, a.k.a. Shaka Sankofa, an African-American man convicted, at age 17, in 1981, for the murder of Bobby Lambert in a Houston supermarket parking lot on the strength of one eyewitness and no physical evidence. Graham seems an unlikely champion for anti–death penalty advocates. While he always maintained his innocence in the Lambert killing, he confessed to committing 21 other violent felonies during the weeklong crime spree that led to his arrest, including the rape of a 57-year-old woman and a series of strong-arm robberies that left two others shot. “To have Graham as the poster child to end the death penalty is like having Frankenstein for a poster child for March of Dimes,” said a local police captain.

What made Graham’s execution different, and the focus of such intense interest, was the unlikely confluence of a growing debate over the fairness with which the death penalty is meted out and the vicissitudes of presidential politicking. Since 1994, when George W. Bush was elected governor of Texas, he has presided over 135 executions, far more than any other U.S. governor since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Now, with Bush vying for the White House, that record is under scrutiny like never before.

“We’re here because of Bush,” said Washington Post reporter Paul Duggan, seeking relief from the sweltering heat in an air-conditioned hut in the shadow of the Walls Unit. Duggan had been in Huntsville on another death-penalty story a few years before; he had been the only nonlocal press on hand. There was one demonstrator, Duggan remembered, a professor from the local state university keeping a solitary vigil in the rain. But with candidate Bush having loudly, repeatedly and at times glibly proclaimed his absolute certainty that all prisoners put to death on his watch were guilty — and in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary — the death penalty, as Duggan said, “has become a political story for us.”

Those politics were made clear by the protesters who had gathered outside the prison. Placards rising from the crowd proclaimed the general sentiment of the day: “Execution is not the solution” and “Stop the death penalty.” A group from Houston had bused in dozens of protesters and distributed signs with Graham’s face and demanding that his life be spared. “The state of justice in Texas is a sham,” said Violet White, a middle-aged mother, explaining why she made the 70-mile trek from Houston. “Most of the people on death row are black. Someone has to stand up like Rosa Parks did and say, ‘This is wrong.’”

Add to the mix a dose of celebrity advocacy — the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton had taken up Graham’s cause, along with Bianca Jagger, Amnesty International spokeswoman and former wife of Mick — and the death-penalty moment had not only arrived, it had hit the big time.

Across the hut paced an agitated Geraldo Rivera, overdressed for the heat in blue jeans and two thick cotton shirts, dabbing the sweat from his face with a sodden white washcloth. “I’m going through a personal catharsis on this issue,” he said.

Until very recently, Rivera had by his own admission been a fairly unquestioning supporter of the death penalty. Then came the DNA testing–based Innocence Project by New York attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, Illinois Governor George Ryan’s moratorium, Northwestern University investigations, a Columbia University study, and investigative reports by The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Houston Chronicle. Now Rivera has jumped on the story in a big way. Besides devoting the night’s hour of Rivera Live to the Graham case and providing spot coverage all day to CNBC and MSNBC, Rivera’s producers are in the midst of producing a one-hour special for the parent network on the subject. “The whole thing is just way too hinky,” he said.


Outside the designated media and protest areas, down across Huntsville’s main drag, where a clutch of locals were looking on, it was hard to find anyone sharing Rivera’s recent self-examination. This particular group was white, and, like other white residents interviewed for this story, they had an eye-rolling reaction to the spectacle unfolding in the shadow of the Walls Unit. “It’s ridiculous, all these people coming here and making this a racial thing,” said one Sam Houston State University student, who declined to give his name.

But the debate surrounding the execution of Gary Graham was decidedly racial, cleaving neatly along the color line. “I don’t see what the big deal is,” said Chad Wilson, another white SHSU student. “They should just give the guy the juice. An eye for an eye.”

The certainty that justice was being done to Gary Graham — which echoes Bush’s own comments on the death penalty — was nowhere to be heard among the African-American residents interviewed for this story. “As long as there is some question, I don’t think they should be giving him the lethal injection,” said Patricia Blanks, a born-again Christian, drawing sounds of affirmation from the group of blacks around her. “They ought to wait.”

Race is one reason why the death-penalty issue in general, and the Graham case in particular, may not end up “dogging the Bush campaign,” to use the phrase that tumbled off the lips of one pundit after another on Thursday. It’s hard to see how Al Gore (who also supports the death penalty) could exploit the Graham case in the way, for instance, that, 12 years ago, another sitting vice president exploited the fate of a black inmate named Willie Horton. Overnight polls showed 49 percent of likely voters approved of the way Bush handled the execution, compared to 30 percent against, suggesting that votes are still to be â found in being tough on criminals, even those of questionable guilt.

Indeed, by the next day, the conventional wisdom was backpedaling to the view that the execution had given Bush the opportunity to look “presidential,” when, dressed in a dark suit and speaking in sober, even somber, tones, he announced from the Capitol in Austin that Graham’s appeals had been exhausted and that he was allowing the execution to go forward.

As Graham’s execution grew closer and his appeals failed one by one, the crowd grew more desperate. Late in the afternoon, Black Panthers paraded through the streets with guns, threatening violence if Graham was put to death. Later, an activist yelled into a microphone, “Bush is a cold-blooded murderer; we can’t let this man become our next president.”

There was no public announcement at the moment of Gary Graham’s death at the hands of the state. No tolling bells or flickering lights, as one imagined happened in the days of the electric chair. The minute hand on the clock above the Walls Unit entrance swept around past the 3, the 6, the 9, creeping toward 9 o’clock as the crowd looked on restively. Finally, someone spotted Bianca Jagger and Jesse Jackson emerging from the building, and there was no doubt any longer. As word trickled through the crowd that Graham was dead, Bush’s image was burned in effigy.

The official time of death was 8:49 p.m., according to prison officials at the post-execution news conference. Graham had gone out kicking and screaming, and proclaiming his innocence to the very last in a rambling six-and-a-half-minute speech that ended only when the poison cut him short. “They are killing me tonight,” he said. “They are murdering me tonight. I did not kill Bobby Lambert. I am an innocent man.”

By 10 o’clock, the protesters were dispersing quietly into the night, with none of the rioting and looting authorities had braced for. The local news reporters were doing their final standups in front of the floodlit Walls Unit. The police were packing away their riot gear. Geraldo was signing off.

And with the heat finally relenting enough to dry sweat off bodies, the town of Huntsville, the capital of capital punishment, was returning more or less to normal. At a bar near the freeway, two young men cooled off with Budweisers while watching the wrap-up on the late local news. “Up here no one really pays attention to it, to be honest,” said one, with an air of detached bemusement. “Next week you all will be gone, and they’ll be juicing some more folks and no one will care,” said the other. “That’s just another day here. That’s just Texas.”


The next execution in Huntsville, of prisoner Jessy San Miguel, 28, was scheduled for Thursday, June 29, at 6 p.m.

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