Stars and supporters fight to halt Texas execution

WASHINGTON - No one has ever claimed that Gary Graham is an angel but, if his execution goes ahead in just over three days' time, he will certainly become a martyr in the eyes of many Americans, writes Phil Reeves.

In the early hours of Tuesday, Graham is scheduled to die by a lethal injection in a Texan jail, closing a case that has reignited the debate about capital punishment in the United States. Graham, 29, has won the support of numerous Hollywood entertainers, civil liberty groups and politicians - all of whom agree that he is innocent of the murder for which he was convicted. Danny Glover, Ed Asner and Kenny Rogers are among those who have taken up his cause.

He has been under sentence of death since 1981, when a court decided that he was guilty of shooting dead Bobby Grant Lambert, 59, outside a Safeway store in Houston. But there was only one eyewitness who identified him positively - and she only saw the killer's face for a split second - and no physical evidence linking him to the crime. According to his lawyers, six other crime-scene witnesses do not believe he was the killer. After his conviction, five alibi witnesses came forward, saying that he was socialising with them on the night of the murder.

No one has sought to deny Graham's record makes ugly reading. He confessed to 10 violent robberies during one week, in which he shot and injured four people. But, as his supporters stress, neither Texas nor the US has the legal authority to execute someone for robbery. The case has focused attention on the possibility that, as US executions gather pace, increasing numbers of innocent people risk being sent to their death. In the last five months, four once-condemned prisoners have been released after spending years on death row. Two were convicted on fabricated evidence, and one was exonerated by DNA analysis.

It has also highlighted the dilemma of capital defendants, who are frequently (like Graham) ill- educated young blacks who find themselves represented by low-grade, underpaid and overworked court-appointed attorneys. Their dilemma has deepened considerably in the last year, after a tough new appeal ruling by the Supreme Court made the route to the execution chamber far swifter.

This stated that the 'presumption of innocence disappears' upon conviction in a procedurally fair trial, and a defendant's 'threshold showing' of innocence must 'necessarily be extraordinarily high' in order for his case to be considered in a federal court. As a result, convicted prisoners must now pin their hopes far more heavily on appeals for clemency to state governors or pardons and paroles boards.

Such appeals do not have an impressive record in Texas, part of the south's so-called 'Death belt', where sparing a doomed man is politically precarious, to say the least. The Democratic governor of Texas, Ann Richards, has presided over 26 executions since taking office in 1991.

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