A test for Bush's compassion?


Texas: With numerous executions scheduled as primaries and caucuses near, some think the candidate should reconcile his death penalty stance with his self-portrait as a `compassionate conservative.'

January 21, 2000|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Tonight, if all goes as planned, Larry Robison will die under a full moon. He wanted it that way. A friend told him that if you have to die, it's the best time to travel from one world to the next. The Texas court obliged.

It was the same justice system that in November declared Robison, 42, mentally competent to be executed, ending 16 years on death row for the man who was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and repeatedly denied treatment before he killed five people in 1982.

Robison's is one of seven executions planned for this month in Texas, all under Gov. George W. Bush. The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Bush has overseen 115 executions, more than any other governor in any state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in yesterday's Sun Journal incorrectly stated that five Death Row inmates were scheduled to be executed in Texas this month. The inmates pictured were scheduled for execution last summer. Also, the photo caption included the wrong date for Larry Robison's picture. He was photographed in 1982. The Sun regrets the errors.

2 executions this week

Last night, an inmate was executed for a rape and murder, the second Texas execution this week. Three more are set for next week.

With numerous inmates lined up to die as Bush heads into the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, death penalty opponents and advocates for the mentally ill say the period ahead will test Bush's character. They want him to reconcile his death penalty record with his self-definition as a "compassionate conservative."

"This is prime time now," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, which argues that the death penalty is unfairly administered.

"The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire are all very soon," Dieter said. "You have not only executions in Texas, which is not news, but some particularly disturbing cases, such as a juvenile offender and Larry Robison, who is certainly mentally ill. These are cases that test one's commitment to compassion."

It's not clear whether or how death penalty cases affect national elections.

Opponents of the death penalty concede that Bush has suffered little if any damage because of the executions at home.

President Clinton didn't shy away from the issue when he was a presidential candidate. In 1992, eager to show he was tough on crime, he interrupted his presidential campaign to return to Arkansas for the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, who had killed a police officer then shot himself in the head. The resulting brain damage left Rector so impaired that he tried to save part of his last meal to eat after the execution.

Aside from the volume of cases in Texas, the nature of some of the cases deserves special attention, death penalty opponents argue.

Robison's case gained national attention as his mother publicized the lack of treatment for the mentally ill. The inmate executed last night claimed that faulty DNA analysis helped convict him of a crime he did not commit.

A third Texas inmate scheduled to die was a juvenile at the time of his crime. (The United States and four other nations execute people who were under age 18 when they committed their crimes, according to Amnesty International. The others are Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.)

Joseph Cooper, a political science professor and former provost at the Johns Hopkins University, said thorny death penalty cases would be more of a problem for Bush if he were running for governor of Maryland rather than for president.

`Not a federal issue'

"The death penalty doesn't directly bear on the issues that are going to determine the people's votes in this election," Cooper said. "It's not a federal issue. We're talking about states' issues. I don't think when it comes to matters like Social Security or Russia or health care that it has that kind of rank or status.

"It could affect judgments of a person's character and his personal claims, but it has to be striking and has to be made relevant, and it's hard to see a pattern of events in which all of that could happen. It's possible, depending on how George Bush handles it."

Seventy-one percent of the American public supports capital punishment, according to a Gallup poll last year. But regardless of their stand on the death penalty, people are less tolerant of executing the mentally disabled and the young, said Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, who teaches a course on capital punishment at Yale Law School.

"While there's support for the death penalty in the country, no question, the reality of the death penalty is the execution of the mentally ill and mentally retarded, and people who were children at the time of the crimes," Bright said. "And the fact that we're going at such speeds in states like Texas and that we're risking the execution of innocent people is very troubling to people."

Bush has said that he supports the death penalty because it saves lives. A Bush spokesman, Mike Jones, said the Texas governor has limited leeway because only the 18-member Board of Pardons and Paroles can commute a death sentence. Legally, Bush can issue only a 30-day stay, something he has never done.

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