Bush weighs death sentence reprieve, inmate's life hangs in balance

HUNTSVILLE, Texas - Amid increasing national scrutiny of capital punishment, Gov. George W. Bush prepared to grant his first reprieve in a death penalty case after 131 Texas executions during his five years in office.

Bush, a death penalty supporter who last week announced that he supports DNA testing in some cases to settle any doubts, said he was ''more than likely'' to grant convicted child killer Ricky Nolen McGinn the one-time, 30-day reprieve as defense attorneys seek more testing of crime scene evidence.

McGinn is scheduled to die this evening for the 1993 rape and killing of his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Bush said he would wait until McGinn runs out of appeals before acting.

''I'm inclined to (intervene) because I want ... the man to have his full day in court,'' Bush said. ''If there is any doubt, any outstanding evidence that exonerates him from the rape, we ought to look at it.''

Bush, the Republican presidential front-runner, has been criticized for allowing executions to continue in his home state while he campaigns as a ''compassionate conservative.'' Texas is by far the national leader in the number of executions; there were 35 last year and 19 so far this year, includine one Wednesday. At least seven executions are scheduled for June.

Only once since he took office has Bush spared a condemned inmate from lethal injection: He commuted Henry Lee Lucas' death sentence to life in 1998 when evidence cast doubt on Lucas' murder conviction.

Bush has rejected pleas from the Vatican, among others, and refused two years ago to keep convicted killer Karla Tucker from becoming the first woman put to death in Texas since the Civil War era.

Bush never has used his executive power to grant a reprieve, but the McGinn case has given him pause.

''I believe this is a case where it's important for me to send a signal about what I may do because it is a case where we're dealing with a man's innocence or guilt,'' Bush said Wednesday at a campaign stop in Phoenix.

Illinois Gov. George Ryan, also a Republican, imposed a moratorium on executions in January amid concern that innocent people were on death row. The New Hampshire Legislature voted last week to abolish that state's death penalty, a step vetoed by the governor.

But it is Texas that is at the center of the storm.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, Texas has carried out 217 executions, the most by any state. Virginia has executed 76 inmates in that time, followed by Florida with 46.

Last week, Bush said he supported the use of DNA testing in pending death penalty cases.

He also reiterated his belief that no innocent person has been executed in Texas during his time in office. He contends the case-by-case scrutiny given to cases in Texas eliminates the need for a moratorium.

Hours before receiving word of Bush's comments, McGinn speculated that a postponement might help the governor's image.

''I don't know how it would hurt him,'' he said. ''It would show they're trying to make the judicial system right.''

Bush appoints the 18-member Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which recommends to him whether a reprieve or commutation is appropriate. He is not bound by the recommendations.

McGinn attorney Richard Alley said he was confident Bush would grant his client a reprieve until at least June 30, when additional DNA tests on physical evidence should be complete.

''I think the governor thinks like most people on the street think,'' Alley said. ''Obviously, if the evidence comes back and exonerates (McGinn), that's it. The sentence needs to be commuted and he needs to be released.''

Brown County District Attorney Lee Haney, the prosecutor who put McGinn on death row, said he was disappointed but he understood the national focus.

''The governor is running for president so there's a spotlight on Texas,'' Haney said. ''And DNA's a hot topic.''

In an unrelated case Wednesday, Bush pardoned a 45-year-old man who was convicted of rape and kidnapping and spent 10 years trying to have DNA testing done in his case. A.B. Butler Jr. was freed from prison in January after the tests cleared him.

It was Bush's 15th pardon as governor and third based on DNA evidence.


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