Texas death row on hold to take heat off Bush

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The Independent US

With the Governor, George W Bush, seeking to avoid all unnecessary embarrassment in the run-up to next month's presidential election, Texas has slammed the brakes on its usually hectic schedule of judicial executions.

With the Governor, George W Bush, seeking to avoid all unnecessary embarrassment in the run-up to next month's presidential election, Texas has slammed the brakes on its usually hectic schedule of judicial executions.

Having kept up a pace of one execution per week during the summer, the state has put just one man to death since August, with one more scheduled to die by lethal injection on 1 November. Then, however, there will be a flurry of five executions in the week immediately following 7 November, the day the United States elects its next president.

The state Department of Criminal Justice denies that there is any connection to the electoral calendar, but the timing is highly convenient for Mr Bush, who attracted considerable flak earlier in the summer for his ardent championing of the death penalty. Despite growing doubts around the country about the safety of capital convictions, Texas continues to lead the nation for the pace and number of its executions. Mr Bush has given the go-ahead to 145 of them since becoming governor of Texas five years ago.

Just a week ago, a new report from a group of Texas defence lawyers slammed the state's record on capital convictions, saying they were marred by racial disparities, incompetent defence counsel and misconduct of the prosecution. The process, the report said, "lacks the integrity to reliably identify the guilty or meaningfully distinguish those among them who deserve a sentence of death".

Mr Bush has consistently maintained the guilt of all 145 prisoners he has had executed. In June, however, doubts about the evidence against Gary Graham, 36, an African American accused of shooting a woman outside a supermarket, sparked demonstrations outside Huntsville prison and cast an unwelcome glare on Texas's record as the most pitiless judicial death machine in the world. Mr Graham was put to death anyway.

The issue has not featured prominently on the campaign trail, mainly because Mr Bush's opponent, the Vice-President, Al Gore, has not dared raise it - conventional wisdom saying that even a whiff of opposition to the death penalty is a vote-loser in the US.

In the second of the three presidential debates, however, Mr Bush attracted criticism when he mentioned two forthcoming executions with a broad smile on his face. He was then put on the defensive when a voter asked him in the third debate whether he took pleasure in signing death warrants.

On that occasion, Mr Bush put on his most solemn expression and said he took the process very seriously. He did not, however, mention a New York Times report that said he spent no more than 15 minutes on average deciding the fate of prisoners on death row.

The one execution to have taken place since August was free of controversy. The man who died, Ricky McGinn, had been granted a stay earlier in the year - the first of Mr Bush's tenure - to allow time for DNA testing. The DNA tests suggested he had indeed raped and murdered his 12-year-old stepdaughter, and he was executed on 27 September.

The 1 November case, concerning a Fort Worth man accused of accepting money to kill a woman's mother, also appears to be criticism-proof.

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