WASHINGTON — American public opinion can move in mysterious ways, as politicians can find to their surprise, and sometimes to their dismay. Opinion surveys have generally shown strong American support for the death penalty, running as high as 80 percent in 1994. So, when Gov. George Ryan last January suspended executions in Illinois as flawed with error, and the Catholic bishops of Texas appealed to Gov. George W. Bush to do likewise, he brushed it off.
"These were people who were found guilty by a jury of their peers," he said. "These are people who have had full access to the courts of law. There's no doubt in my mind that each person who has been executed in our state was guilty of the crime committed."
President Clinton rejected calls for a moratorium on executions, and Vice President Al Gore straddled the issue by saying he saw no evidence to justify an execution moratorium in the federal court system.
But the issue didn't go away. A Gallup poll this year showed support for capital punishment dipping to 66 percent. But many who are for the death penalty would still hesitate when faced with the possibility of innocent people being executed. Finally, Mr. Bush felt compelled to issue his first stay of execution. He's being asked now to act in another case. The facts in this case are revealing.
Gary Graham was convicted of killing Bobby Grant Lambert in a Safeway parking lot after a two-day trial in which no murder weapon was produced, nor any fingerprint, blood, or DNA match. Only one of five eyewitnesses said she could recognize the killer. She identified Graham in the second of two line-ups. The defendant was the only one who appeared in both. Graham's court-appointed counsel was Ron Mock, four times disciplined for unprofessional conduct in recent years. He has yet to win a murder case.
Now a nine-year Columbia University study has shown that 2 of 3 convictions nationally were reversed because of errors by police, prosecution, or defense lawyers. The Chicago Tribune, studying the 131 executions in Texas under Bush, found that in 40, defense attorneys made no real defense. Dozens of defendants were compromised by unreliable evidence, including jailhouse informants and untrustworthy psychiatrists.
Seeing an emerging campaign issue, both candidates have begun hedging their positions. In Kennebunkport, Maine, last Sunday, Bush told reporters that, "with full access to a fair trial," Texas has "adequately answered innocence or guilt." He no longer insisted on the real guilt of "each person convicted."
And Mr. Gore, in a televised women's forum in Trenton, N.J., on Monday, said that if DNA testing were to uncover a record like that of Illinois in other states, it would "justify a moratorium as in Illinois." He called unjust execution "one of the worst tragedies you can imagine."
Belatedly, candidates, fearful of being on the wrong side of the capital-punishment issue, have learned that, not capital punishment, but executing innocent people in a gross miscarriage of justice is the issue.
Professor James Liebman, who led the Columbia study, concludes that America has a "broken system," "fraught with error." Bush and Gore will undoubtedly have ample opportunity to deal with that indictment.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society