Death penalty to follow Bush through campaign

AUSTIN, Texas - Texas is scheduled to execute an average of one man a week through Election Day, making it the presidential campaign issue that won't go away for Gov. George W. Bush.

Bush says interest in the case of Gary Graham, who was executed Thursday, and the state's accelerated capital punishment is the result of the ''emotionality'' of the death penalty debate. He has shrugged off doubts about the fairness of the justice system, saying he knows of no innocent person executed in the state.

Bush's handling of the furor over how the death penalty is meted out in Texas is a window into his personality, giving voters a preview of how he might deal with the nation's weightiest public policy decisions if he wins the White House, political analysts say.

''Someday, he might have to push a button that doesn't just fry an individual but says, 'We are at war,''' said Marc Landy, chairman of Boston College's political science department. ''The issue with Bush is not does he have the guts to do it but is he a judicious, thoughtful, mature leader?''

Bush's body language, rhetoric and demeanor in dealing with the case gives voters a glimpse of his personality and character, added Benjamin Page of Northwestern University. Bush was criticized for laughing during a televised debate when asked about a pending execution.

''It's the question of basic brainpower but also the question of basic humanity and depth of feeling,'' said Page, a political science professor. ''This issue is a keyhole into his character.''

Death penalty protesters dogged Bush during a three-day swing through Washington state and California this week, but he didn't flinch.

He waited until Graham's appeals were completed Thursday before commenting.

''I recognize that there are good people who oppose the death penalty. I have heard their message and I respect their heartfelt point of view,'' Bush said, reading from a seven-paragraph statement before a packed news conference. He said he supported the decision to permit the execution.

''Mr. Graham has had full and fair access to state and federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court. After considering all the facts I am confident justice is being done. May God bless the victims, the families of these victims, and Mr. Graham.''

Bush's state has put more people to death in the last two decades than any other. This year, 23 inmates - including Graham - were executed; there have been 135 executions during Bush's 5 years in office.

Including Graham, 15 more are scheduled before Election Day on Nov. 7 - almost one a week.

The governor has said several times he believes none of those put to death on his watch were executed in error. But a majority of Texans believe an innocent person has been put to death, according to a media poll published Thursday.

The Scripps Howard Texas Poll found that 57 percent believe someone has been mistakenly executed. Also, 87 percent said death-row inmates should have access to free DNA tests to try to prove their innocence.

Texans, however, continue to strongly support capital punishment, with 73 percent of those surveyed favoring the death penalty. A recent Gallup Poll showed that support nationally for capital punishment has fallen to 66 percent, its lowest level since 1981.

Despite those numbers and a moratorium on executions in Illinois, Bush is sticking to his belief that executions ''save lives'' as a deterrent. He also has signaled an open-mindedness to reforms, such as DNA testing that might clear death row inmates.

Vice President Al Gore, a death penalty supporter and Bush's Democratic presidential rival, declined again Thursday to comment on the Graham case, saying he did not know the details. But he renewed his praise of Republican Gov. George Ryan for imposing the moratorium in Illinois. This month, Bush authorized a reprieve for inmate Ricky McGinn pending DNA tests.

Two years ago, he told the parole board to review the case of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and his death sentence eventually was commuted to life.

But it is Graham's case - he was convicted of murder based largely on the testimony of one eyewitness - that has sparked the most protests to date and focused the issue on Bush.


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