Southern justice in the dock

One-eyed murderer sets a precedent in Texas: they let him live
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TEXAS has commuted a death penalty for the first time since execution was reintroduced in1976. The unlikely beneficiary is a convicted matricide who confessed to 600 murders and boasted that he "made hamburgers" out of the corpses.

Texas holds the crown for killing inmates on Death Row faster than any other state in America. It does not favour last-minute reprieves. There was no pity last February for the born-again Karla Faye Tucker when she became the first woman executed in the state since the Civil War. How ironic, then, to see Governor George Bush stepping forward late Friday to spare the life of one Henry Lee Lucas.

Lucas had been set to meet with his executioner in Huntsville, Texas, at 6.01 this Tuesday evening. With one eye - the other was lost in a childhood accident - and grizzled features, Lucas is hardly a poster boy for the anti-death penalty movement. When he first came to the attention of the Texas authorities in the early 1980s, he claimed to have murdered no less than 600 people across the land and bragged of filleting his victims "like fish".

The mass confessions turned him into the serial killer celebrity of the century. For months, Lucas was escorted on police planes around the country to the sites of his alleged crimes, basking in the attention of a legion of reporters. In the end, most of his claims were discounted. He was, however, eventually convicted of 10 killings and had already served time for killing his mother.

Only one of those convictions resulted in the death penalty for Lucas. In 1984, he was found guilty of the rape and murder of the "orange socks" woman, so named because those were the only items on the body when it was found. For the others, he received multiple life sentences.

But the orange socks case quickly became problematic. Not long after the trial, former Texas State Attorney, Jim Mattox, reviewed the case and concluded that the only link between the slaying and Lucas was the confession he had given and then swiftly recanted. Worse, Mr Mattox concluded that it was likely that Lucas was in Florida at the time of the murder. "No rational jury could have found Henry Lucas guilty based on the standard of beyond reasonable doubt."

For years, Texas has been fighting the federal courts to ensure the sentence on Lucas remained. But whatever they thought of him, opponents of the death penalty protested that to kill Lucas for a crime he did not commit would make a final mockery of the capital punishment system.

On Thursday, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles apparently reached the same conclusion. It did something it has not done for any other condemned prisoner since the death penalty was reintroduced and recommended the governor commute the sentence to another life term in prison. No one is more surprised than Lucas. "It shows there is some justice in Texas," he said from his cell.

Governor Bush, fighting for re-election this year and fully expected to set his sights on the White House in 2000, was in a bind. But it was he who asked the board to consider the case. And so, he went along with the advice and set a precedent for his state. Announcing that he was commuting the sentence to life, he said: "I believe there is enough doubt about this particular crime that the State of Texas should not impose its ultimate penalty."