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PERSPECTIVE ON JUSTICE : A Fervor to Kill in a Doubtful Case : Do we tell the world he was 'just another black man'? Is that why no court heard all the evidence?

August 08, 1993|DANNY GLOVER | Danny Glover is an actor and a concerned citizen. and

Inside the Huntsville prison in Texas, 29-year-old Gary Graham awaits execution. Outside the prison and throughout the nation and the world, individuals and organizations have publicly called for a halt to his execution. They seek a full and fair hearing of the evidence and a new trial.

I say that it is the business of every thinking and caring American when a state decides to execute a man or a woman. It is the business of every thinking and caring American when a state is so intent on killing a person, even when the evidence of innocence is so compelling.

What if the eyewitness to the murder Graham was convicted of committing woke up tomorrow morning and said: "Maybe I made a mistake. I really didn't see him so clearly. Maybe the guy was shorter. Maybe his skin was lighter. Maybe . . ."

Graham has said: "They can't bring me back." If he were to be executed, without the presentation of new evidence, how would the conscience of Texas feel then? How would this go down in the history books? What would we tell the children of Texas, the children of America, or of the world? Would we tell the truth? "He was just another black man . . . . He was just another ------."

It is the business of everyone in this country that African-American males are criminalized from birth. It is the business of every American that we skimp on educational programs and job programs for young black men but not on jail terms or death sentences. Why are 73% of all the people who were sentenced to death for crimes committed as teen-agers in Harris County, Tex., African-American or Latino? Why did a nearly all white jury hear Graham's case? Why is the United States the only Western industrialized nation that has executed juveniles in the last decade? What does it mean about the fundamental principles governing this land and our people when there is such a fervor to kill?

Graham grew up on the poor northeast side of Houston. His mother was mentally ill; his father was an alcoholic and abusive. In 1981, at age 17, he committed a series of armed robberies to which he pleaded guilty and received a 20-year sentence. He was then convicted of the murder of a white male in a grocery-store parking lot and sentenced to death. Graham has always claimed that he did not commit the murder. According to a recent affidavit, his defense team assumed that he was guilty.

Twelve years later, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Texas Resource Center attorneys have uncovered evidence that raises grave questions about Graham's guilt, evidence that Graham's defense never bothered to look for. But a Texas law barring consideration of any new evidence presented more than 30 days after the date of conviction has kept the evidence from being heard in a court of law.

The people determined to kill Graham have responded to the new evidence and the widespread opposition to his execution by attacking the messengers, claiming this is a public-relations campaign using celebrities and outsiders who have no business in Texas. This is not about celebrities. This is not about public relations. There are no gimmicks, no slick tricks. It is about information. It is about the truth. It is about how we define justice.

This is about what it means to be young and black or brown in 1993 in the United States of America, and specifically in Texas, which is the leading executioner in the nation. Six executions are scheduled for this month in the state.

I do not excuse Graham's armed robberies and other acts of violence in 1981. I am particularly committed to educating youth about alternatives to violence. But, at the same time, I cannot excuse a society for perpetuating the conditions that may bring Gary Graham to the executioner's door. I cannot excuse our society from perpetuating racism. And make no mistake about it: Gary Graham is a victim of racism.

He now faces an execution date Aug. 17, although a state court judge has ruled that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles must hold a hearing on the question of innocence before then or grant a stay.

I cannot certify Graham's innocence. Based on everything that I know, I believe he did not murder. But that is not the point. The point is that to date no court of law has heard all of the evidence.

I met Graham in May. In his 12 years on Death Row, Graham has re-created and educated himself. He has become an eloquent advocate for youth and for prisoners' rights.

He wrote recently in a piece called Reflections: "Death Row is penal vacuum, an atmosphere filled with hate, nightmares, violence and death. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am human, that I am a man, that tender and loving emotions can be rekindled . . . . I look for that spark of life in the mirror of my soul."

Let us look for that spark of life that mirrors justice while we struggle for our humanity in a time of profound moral crisis, let us put our faith in the living.

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