Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Board chairman Garrett Will Not Tolerate A Jerry Springer Type Atmosphere

Chairman Gerald Garrett
The Death Penalty in Texas: a 40-Year Retrospection 

Part 3: By Dorothy Charles Banks
Special to The Villager
August 2000

Outspoken, aggressive and volatile protests against the death penalty does not impress the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles Chairman Gerald Garrett, first appointed by Gov. George Bush and reappointed by Gov. Rick Perry. They take criticism in stride. It comes with the position.

Garrett readily acknowledges the recent rush of protests calling for a moratorium on executions in Texas, and the demand that the Board conduct business openly rather than privately. Given that trials are open to the public, Garrett counters the last demand with a question: "What is the expectation of having an open hearing?"

"I am not personally opposed to public hearings. I understand there are those who are suspicious of the process, who would like to have more insight into it. People have a different expectation of what can be accomplished. Quite frankly, what I get from other people about a hearing is an opportunity to come in to rant and rave about a particular case. Some simply want a forum to speak to a much broader issue, and to a much broader audience than 18 board members," says Garrett, whose term expires in 2001.

Appointed to the Board in 1995, Garrett earns $82,000 a year;  other members earn $80,000 each. The positions are full-time. Qualifications are set by the Texas constitution. A candidate must be a citizen of Texas, representative of the general population, and reside in Texas for two years before the appointment. The 18 members are appointed with advice from, and with consent of the Senate. Garrett said party affiliation is not a big factor in getting appointed, but Republicans tend to appoint their own, as does Democrats. However, he said there are some Independents sitting on the Board. Offices are located in seven Texas counties: Arliene, Amarillo, Angleton, Gatesville, Huntsville, Palestine and San Antonio.

The Board was recently called to task regarding the execution of Gary Graham on June 22, 2000, due to the Board's tendency to operate privately. "There were calls for a public hearing. That occurs fairly frequently in these type cases. I think people want to see the process. It's not so much it's being private, they want to see what we're doing in private. We look at these cases at night, in the wee hours of the morning, over the weekend. It's a process, not just a sit-down, eight in the morning, have a decision by Friday at the end of the workday," Garrett says.

Powerless governor

In Texas the governor has no power over the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Upon making a majority decision in a capital punishment case, the Board may recommend commutation to life in prison to the governor, whose power is limited to granting a 30-day stay. If the governor opposes the recommendation he can recommend in a written request that the Board initiate an investigation into the case.

Under Bush and the current Board, 146 criminals have been executed in Texas since December 12. Only Virginia, California, and Florida follows Texas in executions. Under Ann Richards, 51 inmates (18 blacks, 23 whites, 10 Hispanics) were executed from January 15, 1991 to January 17, 1995. The majority of Texans on death row, and those who have been executed, were tried and convicted in Harris (Houston) County.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Texas has executed 222 inmates, with Gary Graham being the last until September 27, 2000, when Ricky McGinn was executed for the murder and rape of his 12-year old stepdaughter. McGinn said he was not guilty of the 1993 rape and murder, but DNA tests proved otherwise. As of June 30, Texas's death row is housing 455 inmates.

Garrett said when they make a decision regarding a condemned convict who files for commutation of sentence or a reprieve, the Board does not have a lot of time to waste  making a decision.

"The individual usually waits until the last day that we'll accept an application to apply. That puts added pressure on us to make a decision in a fairly quick amount of time. There are 21 calendar days that we'll accept an application. We try to make a decision rendered approximately two days prior to the execution," says Garrett.

"In the Gary Graham case we kept getting information from different people; different resources that felt they had information that was important enough to be considered. So I extended the deadline twice to accommodate the additional information," Garrett says.

He said they were criticized for making a decision on the day of Graham's execution. Addressing public's perception of the Board faxing and telephoning in their decisions, Garrett said they have a set "due date" to respond to an application. Board members independently review "this information and then on a certain day, we ask them to get the information back to Austin. It is sent back to us by fax."

Garrett said every decision the Board makes is open to second guessing, and interpretation of "being self-centered, being a show, not being well thought out. That's just a part of the business we're in. Our decisions are not always unpopular."

He said acting as one body the Board attempts to do what is right. Without emotions involved, they stick to the facts as spelled out by evidence. He said of the 22 inmates executed this year half of them applied for clemency. "This is clearly our most important responsibility."

In the event of repetitive applications for reprieves, submitted to the Board on behalf of the same inmate, the request may be "summarily denied by the Board without meeting," Garrett says.

Former Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Morris Overstreet, said on Nightline,  "The problem with Texas is we don't have competent lawyers to represent indigent capital murder defendants. If we are going to have capital punishment then the state, the government, has an obligation to make sure that the system works, and the system does not work at this time."

In 1998 Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), introduced Senate Bill 247, which was vetoed by Gov. George Bush. The bill would have strengthened Texas's indigent criminal defense system. Ellis said in June 1999, "The harsh reality is that poor defendants get a poor defense in our current system. The have no lobbyists or natural constituency.

"It is a scatter shot, inefficient, and not accountable to anyone. If we are going to lead the world in incarceration and executions then we should at least make sure that defendants are guaranteed effective legal representation. I understand that Gov. Bush was contacted by many judges in Texas who asked him to veto the bill. Justice is on trial in Texas, and the policy discussion may have to be resolved in a courthouse instead of the legislature," Ellis said in a press release.

Only the guilty is executed

Chariman Gerald Garrett said his decisions are influenced by facts of the case, and information submitted to the Board. They look at the inmate's argument for commutation or clemency. They keep in mind that the man or woman on death row has been deemed guilty by a jury, and that he or she was not only convicted of a crime, but a predatory offense. He says in Texas "a lot of folk are killed annually, daily. Not every murder result in prosecution or getting the death penalty."

Echoing Gov. George Bush's stance, and belief that Texas has never executed an innocent criminal, Garrett said that is true, at least in the cases that he has been involved with. When Henry Lee Lucas, the self-confessed serial killer found himself on death row, the Board commuted his sentence to life in prison. Garrett said "there was enough evidence put forward to bring that (innocence or guilt) into question. The information clearly suggested that he was not in the states of the crimes that he was on death row for."

Lucas admitted to killing over 200 people in various states, but later recanted, saying the police provided him with crime photos and information about each killing. Loaded with that information, Lucas says he repeated it back to the police, who took it as a confession. Lucas was eventually charged with murdering his mother.

Garrett said he was in the minority when he voted for a reprieve for Ricky McGinn, who he favored "because I thought additional time to explore a bit of information was the proper thing to do." He said with Graham, the witnesses, except for eyewitness Bernadine Skillern, were unreliable in both testimony and memory. Some of them tended to be "flat out inaccurate."

"When you look at the reliability of the statements made, the inconsistency of the statements made, the weight went to the one who has been criticized. Interestingly enough, supporters of Gary Graham are quick to criticize this witness, but they brought forth other witnesses, and an individual who was 12 years old, whose memory is questioned some 19 years after the fact," says Garrett.

Continuing, Garrett says, "I think that one thing the death penalty opponents is accomplishing is they are attaching faces and lives to the people that are on death row. Crime and punishment is ugly. It's not pretty. Most people's concept of crime and punishment is guided by what they see on TV, where the problems are solved in an hour with commercials. That's not reality.

"I think what the opponents are accomplishing by bringing attention to the Carla Faye Tuckers and Gary Grahams is letting it be known we're talking about human beings here. We're talking about a set of circumstances that are unfortunate for everybody. When people start looking at that, they give it a second thought. People need to think once or twice abut their position," Garrett concluded.

He said the crimes committed by Tucker and Graham were predatory, not just two people shooting at each other, and one getting lucky. According to Garrett, a predatory crime is well planned. It is a brutal violation of another human being. He said victims leave behind families that are traumatized. "I think this discussion is good. Either you're for the death penalty or you're not."

Punishable by death

In Texas crimes punishable by death are: murder of a policeman, firefighter, combination of rape and kidnapping while committing a burglary or armed robbery, murder for hire, killing a correctional officer in an attempt to escape prison, multiple murders, murder of a child under six years old.

Garrett said he is not on the Board of Pardons and Paroles to wave the banner for or against capital punishment. He leaves that to politicians, theorists and people on Sunday talk shows, "because they don't have anything else to do. We have different reasons for getting involved with this. I have a very important position. I have to live with the decisions that I make for the rest of my life. So I stay focused on my responsibility to do the best job I can," says Garrett.

Asked if Gov. Bush should declare a moratorium on capital punishment in Texas, as did Republican Gov. George Ryan in Chicago, Garrett said, "I'll put it his way. If Texas had the record that Illinois has, half the people on death row have been found not guilty . . . if we had the same record like that, then yeah," says Garrett.

Since 1976, 12 convicted criminals have been executed, while 13 condemned men were exonerated in Illinois during the same time frame. Texas reversed and dismissed 11 convictions since 1979. The most noted death row inmate was Clarence Bradley of Conroe, Texas, falsely convicted of raping and murdering a white student in Conroe, where he worked as a janitor at the high school. He was exonerated October 1, 1990.

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