A tale of two governors

By the summer of 1999 Texas Governor George W Bush was already front runner for the Republican nomination. He came under sharp criticism for his state's policy of executions. I contrast his policy with Bill Clinton's

A tale of two Governors

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 14 August 1999

This is not a new story. But it will be told again and again, by people who have little regard for justice or truth, so it is important that it is told properly.

It is a story of two men, both governors of southern states, both with ambitions to become President, both facing decisions about controversial executions. The similarities end there: the states differ, the laws differ, the circumstances differ, and the character of the governors differ.

Let us deal with the decent governor first: George W Bush of Texas.

Karla Faye Tucker murdered a man with an axe. She said she was provoked. The man parked a motor-cycle on her carpet, and spilled oil on it. True, I am an admirer of the conservative writer Robert Heinlein who believed that displaying bad manners was the one offence that should carry the death penalty. Under Texas law, however, it does not, and murder does. The courts sentenced Tucker to death - it is mandatory.

Of course those who called for clemency for Tucker had a wide mix of motives. Some people - actually, I am one of them - feel that the death penalty is too dangerous a weapon for the state to wield. But it is foolish and unfair to criticise the Governor of Texas for not implementing the law of Massachusetts. Though this theme was common to the criticism of both governors, it is baseless.

It was rarely stated, but another reason for Tucker's widespread support is that she was a woman: white, blonde and pretty. Texas law, quite properly, does not take account of such things.

A further reason for calling for clemency was that she very publicly announced a conversion to Christianity. Again, no provision is made in Texas law for pardoning a murderer, or commuting a sentence on those grounds. Those who feel that perhaps it should need to bear in mind three things: such a provision would probably run foul of the constitution, would certainly be abused by fake converts who didn't want to die, and cannot, in any case, be invented unilaterally by the Governor. Pretty and blue though her eyes were, Pat Robertson was talking nonsense when he suggested that they gave an infallible guide to her soul. But, even if he had been right, George W Bush had no power to commute her sentence. He could have delayed it, if there had been reason to suppose that it was not lawfully arrived at. But it would then have been referred to a commission with the power to review only the legality of the trial, not the state of her soul. A commission that has never reprieved a properly sentenced murderer. No humane governor would have delayed the sentence by a few weeks when there was no legal basis to have it stopped. Tucker was certain to be executed whatever George W Bush did or said. Dragging out the process - already unfairly prolonged - would have been an act of cruelty.

Arkansas in 1992 had very different laws. The Governor did have the power to stop executions. In the case of Ricky Ray Rector there were very solid grounds in terms of the law, justice, and humanity. Unfortunately for Ricky Ray there was no case in terms of electoral politics. You see Ricky was not female, photogenic, blond, or white.

Ricky Ray was, however, retarded. He had a mental age of eight. Under Arkansas law eight year olds, and those with comparable mental faculties, should not be put to death. The Governor, a former State Attorney General and a Professor of Law, knew this very well. He knew, without a doubt, what the right, moral, and just course of action was.

But he was scared. Scared because, in the previous Presidential election, then Vice-President Bush, had made much of Governor Dukakis's weakness on crime. Dukakis was not only opposed to the death penalty, but believed that murderers should not be locked up either. One of Dukakis's opponent for the Democratic nomination had made even more of the issue. He had highlighted the fact that Willie Horton was not just a murderer, but a black murderer. And Ricky Ray was black too.

So, the Governor took the coward's way out. He allowed the execution of a child in an adult's body to go ahead. This was judicial murder.

Of course all those involved have come a long way since then. The Arkansas murderer is President. The author of the racially charged campaign against Dukakis that frightened Clinton into committing that murder, is his loyal number two. And the Governor who carried out his own duties with dignity, humanity, and respect for the law is the man who will beat Gore in next year's election.

Copyright Quentin Langley 14 August 1999

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