You can learn a lot about candidates who must preside over an execution while campaigning for the presidency. Voters got a snapshot of Bill Clinton when he interrupted his New Hampshire stumping to fly back to Little Rock, Ark., in 1992 and oversee the death of a brain-damaged prisoner convicted of murder. Some saw it as the best smell test of Clinton's ruthlessness, others as affirmation that he really wasn't a bleeding-heart liberal.
George W. Bush interrupted his own campaigning last week to make a decision that is also likely to shape voters' perceptions. After presiding over 131 executions--about one-fifth of all the executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976--Bush for the first time issued a 30-day stay of execution. The lucky man: Ricky Nolen McGinn, who had been sentenced to die for the 1993 rape and murder of his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Some may see Bush's move as the best evidence that he too will do whatever it takes to get elected, others as a sign the Texas Governor puts the compassionate into "compassionate conservatism."
Bush mulled over his choices for 10 days, but when he finally decided to take this unprecedented step, he moved quickly. On the way to a New Mexico event to talk about military policy last Wednesday, communications chief Karen Hughes told the Texas Governor that a state court had barred new DNA tests for McGinn--removing one of the last roadblocks to his execution the next day. As they rolled along under the hot Southwest sun, Bush called his legal counsel, Margaret Wilson, to review the matter. He peppered her with questions: Was DNA relevant? Could it prove whether McGinn had raped his stepdaughter? It would be conclusive, said Wilson. That was important: if McGinn was guilty of only murder but not rape, then under Texas law he would not necessarily have committed a capital crime. Bush went through with his military speech and then called Wilson back. He would probably recommend a reprieve. The word soon went out to reporters. Message: I care. McGinn, who has long insisted he is innocent of both crimes, was pulled away from the execution chamber half an hour before he was scheduled to die and not too long after he'd eaten what he thought was his last meal: a double cheeseburger and a Dr Pepper.
Bush's decision came in the middle of the most turbulent season in the history of the death penalty since it was restored by the Supreme Court in 1976, a season marked by the strange political marriages it has created. There was a time when only a few liberals and a small group of clergymen fretted over the fairness of the death-penalty system. But ever since famed defense lawyer Barry Scheck and his Innocence Project gained national exposure with their successes in freeing death-row inmates with DNA evidence, a number of prominent conservatives have come forward with their doubts about the reliability of the judicial process. These doubts have also turned up in the polls. "I don't know if McGinn is innocent or not," said Scheck, who has signed on as a volunteer in the McGinn case. "But the DNA will tell us. And with DNA data banks, you can not only exonerate someone but find the person who really committed the crime."