The Ghosts Bush Left Behind

Maybe the president's stinginess with mercy in Texas helped make him more generous with it in Washington. Maybe it was the secrets that Scooter will now keep squirreled away.
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Scooter Libby's commutation is still being celebrated in some circles, but down here in Texas, President Bush's move has stirred bitter memories and awakened old ghosts.

I can't help remembering all the people I reported on who begged then-Governor Bush for mercy. They begged for the lives of clients and childhood friends, fathers, sons and brothers, mothers and next-door neighbors. They begged for their own lives. They were all turned away.

Texas has a fabled history of frontier-style justice. Heck, the Houston District Attorney's office alone has sent more people to their deaths than many Third World countries.

But no one in Texas, certainly not anyone in our semi-civilized history, has displayed the moral disregard on the death penalty that George W. Bush demonstrated in his years as governor.

From 1995 to 2001, George W. Bush presided over more than 150 executions, more than any governor in modern times. He signed death warrants the way Britney Spears signs autographs. He refused to allow stays, even for DNA testing, and he answered concerns about the fairness of the system by mouthing empty platitudes about justice and the purity of jury verdicts.

He sat atop a system where sleeping or drunk or incompetent defense attorneys were recurring risks, where issues of race colored jury selection, where politics drove prosecutor's choices to pursue the death penalty, and where the retarded and the mentally ill were regularly led into the death chamber and carried out in body bags.

The governor's office was the last resort for the lost. Governor Bush was all macho and no mercy.

Throughout his years in office, he acted like a kid with a new car, driving the death machine like a drag racer, as hard and as fast as he could.

In many of the cases, Bush and his trusty sidekick Alberto Gonzales, the Laurel and Hardy of the legal system, formed a Death Row dream team. Gonzales wrote brief prosecutorial summaries of each case. Bush read them -- or not -- and then invariably decided not to intervene.

Did the governor even bother to read the clemency petitions put together by inmates and their attorneys? Gonzales has said that the governor did read some of these, but only "from time to time."

Bush denied every petition for clemency that came across his desk except one. The lucky winner was Henry Lee Lucas, a compulsive liar who claimed to have killed hundreds of people. Lucas clearly and demonstrably had not committed the crime for which he was sentenced to die, a problem so blatant and so publicized that even Bush was finally forced to take action.

Ironically, Lucas continued to insist he was guilty of a number of crimes with which he had no connection. The old man whose prostitute mother had put out his eye with a burning cigarette when he was a child, squinted and told me proudly during a Death Row interview that he had "de-headed" a specific victim. Oopsy. In that case, it turned out the person had been shot to death.

This all would have been darkly laughable, but in the rickety jalopy of justice that George W. Bush drove in Texas, a sad fraud like Lucas, a broken fool who spouted bad information about crimes he hadn't committed, came within a heartbeat of the death chamber.

The sheer numbers of human beings who ended up strapped to the gurney here should have grabbed national attention, but they didn't. Not until the Karla Faye Tucker case came along.

I met her in 1994 during a visit to the Texas Women's Death Row. At the time the cellblock was painted in girlish pastels. The doomed women spent their days doing crafts, watching TV and waiting for their appointments with the prison hairdresser or the executioner, whichever came first.

I was chatting with someone who had killed her kids, when I heard a gushy southern "Hi!" from one of the cells. A woman who looked like she might once have been a small-town homecoming queen motioned to me from behind the bars. When I came close, Karla Faye introduced herself and showed me a picture of her new husband, a handsome prison pastor. Karla had become a born-again Christian and often forced the other women on Death Row to watch evangelical TV. I liked her anyway.

I found out later that Karla's drug addict mother used her as a child prostitute to earn money. The little girl became an addict, as well. Karla was condemned to death for helping her then-boyfriend kill two people with a pick ax in a grisly, drug-addled frenzy.

Karla and I stayed in touch and when her death date drew near, she agreed to her first interview with me and correspondent Lesley Stahl for a 60 Minutes piece. That story and Karla's fast-approaching execution set off a firestorm of publicity and a compelling campaign aimed at convincing Bush to spare Karla's life. Even Christian fundamentalist leader Pat Robertson took a momentary break from the "eye for an eye" club to make a personal plea that Karla be spared.

Governor Bush told everyone that he was praying for guidance. But once again, it quickly became clear that God was amazingly consistent on this issue, at least when talking to the governor of Texas. It was announced that the Almighty had apparently given the green light.

When I met with Karla a few days before she was scheduled to die, she was exuberant. She told me she had been praying constantly for a commutation of her sentence and that, the previous night, God had given her an answer.

She said she'd had a vivid dream in which she'd finally gotten Bush's approval for clemency. In her dream, she heard the guards shouting, "She got it, she got it," while inmates throughout the prison cheered. She said she felt so happy that she thought her heart was going to burst.

When she woke up alone in her cell and realized it was only a dream and that she was still headed for the death chamber, she told me that she quietly celebrated by herself. Now she didn't need a pardon from Governor Bush after all, she said. God, she believed, had generously given her the chance to see what a pardon would have felt like. She said she didn't care what happened to her now.

When it came time to say goodbye, we touched hands through the glass. She told me she was going to heaven. I told her to save me a seat.

Ever the loopy optimist, for her last meal Karla requested diet salad dressing. She praised God on the gurney and died spiritually ready to go home, but hoping she wouldn't have to.

Tucker Carlson reported that during the 2000 presidential campaign when he questioned Bush about the case, the candidate did a mocking impression of Karla Faye begging for her life. "Please don't kill me," he pretended to plead with a smirk.

That just leaves me speechless. Not surprised, but speechless.

My memories of George Bush as Texas governor will always be intertwined with scenes from the long list of executions over which he presided, forever part of the ugly atmosphere created by his legal love affair with death.

I remember the roar of the happy crowds outside the Huntsville death house when inmates' executions were announced.

I can't forget the pale, crumpled face of one inmate's elderly mother when she was whisked out of the prison in a wheelchair after watching her son die.

I saw the honest bewilderment of an experienced police detective who uncovered new evidence in one case that he believed to be so compelling that he personally lobbied the governor's office for a delay in the execution so DNA testing could be done. Sorry. Ix-nay. Denied.

I met prison staffers worn down by the steady pace of executions, heard about inmates who fought and kicked as they were dragged to their deaths, read of the men and women who asked for forgiveness before dying and wondered about the ones who insisted they were innocent until their last breath.

A handful of cases do raise questions of actual innocence. Many more bore the earmarks of a broken system burdened by social and financial unfairness.

Most of those executed, of course, were men and women clearly guilty of the crimes for which they had been sentenced to die. The families of their victims have suffered for years and suffer still.

In fact, I thought the saddest element of all was the way Governor Bush and his enablers led these victims' families to believe that more blood would help them heal, that more pain would give them peace. I watched these broken-hearted people walk out of the prison after executions, too. They did not look any happier than when they went in.

Down here, during the Bush years, the details didn't matter.

The doomed were all put to death with a dark and unfeeling efficiency, as though the governor saw himself as something akin to an animal control officer. The inmates seemed as memorable and as meaningful to George Bush as the hapless dogs and cats in an overcrowded county shelter.

Maybe the president's stinginess with mercy in Texas helped make him more generous with it in Washington. Maybe the fact that Scooter Libby wasn't black or brown or poor tilted the balance. Maybe it was the secrets that Scooter will now keep squirreled away.

Or maybe this time God just answered the president's prayers for guidance differently.

Frankly, if I were George Bush, I'd be praying that the ghosts he left behind in Texas are more merciful than he was.

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