Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gary Graham and a single eyewitness conviction

Gary Graham
 "Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty." Numbers 35:30

 On June 23, 2000 a controversial execution took place in Texas. It was not a first for the Lone Star State. This execution drew media attention, anti-death penalty protests and noted civil rights activists. The executed inmate was Gary Graham, 36, an African American. He was convicted on the word of one eyewitness. 

Frank Jarrett, chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, said of the witness: “She was credible” compared to the witnesses who testified for Graham. He said the woman never wavered from her testimony whereas the other witnesses changed their stories.

Gary Graham was convicted in 1981. He claimed he was  innocent of the shooting death. He was 17 when he was charged with the 1981 armed robbery and shooting death of Bobby Lambert outside a Houston supermarket. Graham was convicted primarily on the testimony of one witness, Bernadine Skillern, who testified that she saw the killer's face for a few seconds through her windshield from a distance of 30-40 feet.

Many  capital murder cases are decided without the benefit of an eyewitness. A number of criminal defense attorneys have stated that they prefer it when there is an eyewitness. It gives them a chance to create reasonable doubt. Harris County defense attorney Robert Morrow said, "I see there's an eyewitness and I see an opportunity."

Another local defense lawyer, Floyd Freed, said, " . . .  it certainly gives me more hope at trial" if the prosecutors present an eyewitness. Death penalty cases are usually decided on confessions, physical evidence, and/or circumstantial evidence. In Graham's case there was no confession or  physical evidence. The circumstantial evidence was so weak, prosecutors had to base the  majority of their case on Bernadine Skillern's testimony.” (Texas Execution Information Center).

Two other witnesses, both of whom worked at the grocery store, said they got a good look at the assailant. They said Graham, who has a criminal record, was not the killer. They were never interviewed by Graham's court appointed attorney, Ronald Mock. They were not called to testify at  his trial. Three of the jurors who voted to convict Graham signed affidavits saying they would have voted differently had all of the evidence been available.

Gary Graham’s execution was postponed for three hours while lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for clemency. The request was denied. His court appointed lawyer initiated a lawsuit against the Board of Pardons and Paroles. He said the Board it refused to  grant a reprieve.

Gerald Garrett
In an interview with Board of Pardons and Paroles Chairman Gerald Garrett in 2000, he told me, "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 said they were criticized for making a decision on the day of Graham's execution. Addressing public's conception of the Board faxing and telephoning 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."

Gov. George Bush, then a presidential candidate, said the decision was in the hands of the Board. In Texas, the Board has power over the governor in death penalty cases. The Board voted 14-3 against a 120-day reprieve; 12-5 against computation to a lesser sentence and 17-0 against a conditional pardon.

Among the witnesses to Graham’s execution were civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Given there were so much doubt about Graham’s guilt, Jackson asked Bush to delay the execution. Like all governors preceding him, Bush believed that capital punishment is just, and is a reliable deterrent against crime.

“There are many doubts as to whether Graham, who was 17 at the time of his arrest, actually killed grocery clerk Bobby Lambert on May 13, 1981, during a robbery attempt. There is no physical evidence linking Graham to the crime. His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of one eyewitness, whose identification of Graham is disputed by other eyewitnesses.

“Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis has called on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to hold a public hearing on the Graham case. The 18-member board, which generally votes by fax, plans to vote privately on Thursday and issue a decision at noon, only six hours before Graham is to be put to death. Usually the board meets prior to the scheduled day of execution. The board, comprised of Bush appointees earning $80,000-a-year salaries, has only commuted one death sentence since Bush took office in 1995.” (World Socialist Web Site, June 22, 2000)

Doubts on the minds of Graham supporters:

A) Only one of six witnesses identified Graham. 
B) The gun  found on Graham did not fire the bullet that killed Lambert.
 C) Four witnesses said Graham was some place else when the robbery/murder took place.

Graham is not willing to succumb to the executioner 

According to an eyewitness, Graham violently fought his appointment with death. He had to be restrained and physically carried to the death chamber. He was wrapped in a white sheet to subdue him. As Graham struggled to stave off the execution he continually proclaimed his innocence.

In a long last statement, Graham said: I would like to say that I did not kill Bobby Lambert. That I'm an innocent black man that is being murdered. This is a lynching that is happening in America tonight. There's overwhelming and compelling evidence of my defense that has never been heard in any court of America. What is happening here is an outrage for any civilized country to anybody anywhere to look at what's happening here is wrong. I thank all of the people that have rallied to my cause. They've been standing in support of me. Who have finished with me. I say to Mr. Lambert's family, I did not kill Bobby Lambert. You are pursuing the execution of an innocent man.

I want to express my sincere thanks to all of ya'll. We must continue to move forward and do everything we can to outlaw legal lynching in America. We must continue to stay strong all around the world, and people must come together to stop the systematic killing of poor and innocent black people. We must continue to stand together in unity and to demand a moratorium on all executions. We must not let this murder/lynching be forgotten tonight, my brothers. We must take it to the nation. We must keep our faith.

We must go forward. We recognize that many leaders have died. Malcom X, Martin Luther King, and others who stood up for what was right. They stood up for what was just. We must, you must brothers, that's why I have called you today. You must carry on that condition. What is here is just a lynching that is taking place. But they're going to keep on lynching us for the next 100 years, if you do not carry on that tradition, and that period of resistance. We will prevail. We may loose this battle, but we will win the war. This death, this lynching will be avenged. It will be avenged, it must be avenged.

The people must avenge this murder. So my brothers, all of ya'll stay strong, continue to move forward. We will prevail. We will keep marching. Keep marching black people, black power. Keep marching black people, black power. Keep marching black people. Keep marching black people. They are killing me tonight. They are murdering me tonight.” 

Graham refused a last meal. 

Anti-death penalty protesters

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