Can Bush Afford to Sign This Death Warrant?

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This pesky death penalty thing just won't go away.

Texas governor George W. Bush, who has presided unflinchingly over 131 executions during his tenure, is in the national spotlight again this week as the scheduled lethal injection of convicted murderer Gary Graham looms ever closer. Graham, who was found guilty in 1981 of murdering Bobby Gene Lambert, will die Thursday unless a growing number of protesters and peddlers of mounting adverse publicity prevail and Governor Bush is moved to recommend a commutation or reprieve. Graham's imminent death, while following hard on the heels of Ricky McGinn's well-publicized reprieve, could be far more damning to Bush and Texas in general than McGinn's execution ever threatened to be.

Some death penalty supporters might have been comfortable with McGinn's execution; his guilt in the murder of his 12-year-old stepdaughter was never in question. The only debate revolved around McGinn's guilt in the exacerbating crime (in this case, rape) that edged the murder into capital territory; his lawyers hoped DNA tests would erase the rape charge and take him off death row. The problem for Bush is that many of those same people may not have the stomach to watch Graham die. In fact, Graham's case is being held up around the country as a virtual point-by-point guide to what's wrong with Texas' justice system.

Even a cursory analysis of Graham's trial reveals shocking ineptitude. His defense lawyer, Ronald Mock, didn't call a single witness during the proceedings, essentially allowing the capital murder charge to go unchallenged. It wouldn't have been all that tough for Mock to do his job with a degree of competence: Slim evidence links Graham to the crime; several eyewitnesses have said Graham was not the man they saw at the murder scene, and when he was arrested, Graham was carrying a different gun than that used in the murder.

So what's a staunch defender of the death penalty like Bush to do? Any move he chooses will not be without its risks. "If he grants Graham a stay, he risks looking very political in eyes of death penalty supporters," says TIME Washington correspondent Jay Carney. "Here's this governor who's signed off on a record number of executions, largely without looking back, and in the course of three weeks, he's considered two cases for leniency." On the other hand, if Texas executes Graham, and he is exonerated posthumously, Bush's reputation as a glib executioner could achieve its full bloom.

And while it might seem that such an emotional debate in the middle of an election year would be political poison, there seems to be little concern in the Bush camp over the whole death penalty flap, says Carney. After all, capital punishment is more of a litmus test of a candidate's belief system than an indicator of anything he plans to do as president, and Bush knows he won't lose many moderate votes over the death penalty (his opponent, of course, is also a long-time supporter). And sticking to his guns on his state's executions will only ingratiate him to the party's social conservatives — never a bad idea.