New doubts emerge on guilt of man executed in Texas

By Patrice Dickens
8-24-00

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Civil rights leaders Thursday asked Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate whether Texas prosecutors withheld evidence that might have saved an inmate who was put to death in June. 

Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader of the same name, told the annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that evidence available days before Gary Graham's June 22 execution cast doubt on the prosecution's claim that he shot and killed a man during an attempted robbery. 

``The challenges to Graham's conviction and sentence to death went unheeded, including a last minute appeal to Texas Governor George W. Bush, and now Gary Graham is dead,'' King said. 

``Gary Graham was black and convicted and sentenced on a paltry amount of evidence and then, even in the face of overwhelming evidence pointing to his innocence, his conviction was not reversed.'' 

Graham was executed for the 1981 murder of Bobby Lambert during a robbery outside a Houston grocery story. King said the Chicago Tribune newspaper had reported days before Graham was put to death that the victim had been a 
possible player in a major drugs operation. 

King said Steve Beck, a Drug Enforcement Administration officer, told the newspaper that federal prosecutors in Oklahoma were trying to win Lambert's cooperation in their operation and ``persuade him to testify against 
higher-ups.'' 

Lambert was found with $6,000 in cash in his pocket and his murder -- which Graham always denied committing -- could have been a ``hit,'' King said Beck told the newspaper, adding that the amount of money Lambert was carrying 
indicated robbery was not a motive in the killing. 

While Graham insisted he did not murder Lambert, he pleaded guilty to 10 aggravated robberies committed in the same week. He pistol-whipped two victims, shot one in the neck, struck one man with a car after stealing it from him and kidnapped and raped a 57-year-old-woman. 

Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, said in the run-up to the execution that he was convinced of Graham's guilt and confident that justice was being done. 

But the case was bitterly controversial. 

King, civil rights activist Dick Gregory and the Rev. Al Sharpton wrote a letter to Reno on Thursday asking that she investigate whether critical evidence in Graham's case was withheld. 

The three said previous evidence indicated bullets from the weapon that killed Lambert did not match the gun owned and carried by Graham when he was arrested. And the case was based largely on evidence from one eyewitness, 
Bernadine Skillern, a 53-year-old grandmother. She was the only person to positively identify Graham as the killer in 1981 trial. 

Three jurors who voted to convict Graham in 1981 this June signed affidavits saying they would have voted differently if all evidence had been available, adding their voices to those calling for a fresh trial. 

King noted that not only does Texas lead the country in executions but that those executed are disproportionately black. ``Something is wrong with this picture,'' he said. 

King said he and a delegation of civil rights officials would travel to Texas Monday to present the newly found evidence to Bush and other state officials Tuesday. 

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights group based in Atlanta, is calling for a moratorium on executions in the 10 states with the highest execution rates. 

Texas, which has put 222 people to death since it resumed capital punishment in 1982, and Virginia, with 76 executions in the same period, are at the top of its list. 

Their long-term goal is the scrapping of the death penalty itself. 

``It is very sad that America, as a leading industrial nation, has a death penalty as a solution to the issue of crime,'' King said. ``We know that it is not a deterrent. It never has been and probably never will be.'' 
 



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