Death in Texas
by Sister Helen Prejean
NYRB, Volume 52, Number 1 · January 13, 2005
George W. Bush during his six years as governor of Texas presided over 152 executions, more than any other governor in the recent history of the United States.
He might have succeeded in bequeathing to history this image of himself as a scrupulously fair-minded governor if the journalist Alan Berlow had not used the Public Information Act to gain access to fifty-seven confidential death penalty memos that Bush’s legal counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales …. presented to him, usually on the very day of execution.
The reports Gonzales presented could not be more cursory.
Take, for example, the case of Terry Washington, a mentally retarded man of thirty-three with the communication skills of a seven-year-old.
Washington’s plea for clemency came before Governor Bush on the morning of May 6, 1997. After a thirty-minute briefing by Gonzales, Bush checked “Deny”– just as he had denied twenty-nine other pleas for clemency in his first twenty-eight months as governor.
When Berlow asked Gonzales directly whether Bush ever read the clemency petitions, he replied that he did so “from time to time.”
Instead, Bush seems to have relied on Gonzales’s summaries, and they clearly indicate that Gonzales continuously sided with the prosecutors. One third of his summary of Terry Washington’s case is devoted to a detailed description of the gruesome aspects of the crime, while he fails to mention Washington’s mental limitations and his miserably ineffective defense lawyer.
In response to Berlow’s direct question, Gonzales admitted that his conferences with Bush on these cases typically lasted no more than thirty minutes. Berlow confirmed this for himself when he looked at Bush’s appointment calendar for the morning of Washington’s execution and saw a half-hour slot marked “Al G–Execution.”
By the time Bush had served as governor for a little over five years, he had already presided over the executions of 130 men and one woman.
Using the “thirty-minute formula,” the clemency petitions of the men were denied with dispatch, but the plea for clemency by the woman, Karla Faye Tucker, presented a special challenge.
By the time Tucker climbed onto Texas’s lethal injection gurney, whispering, “Lord Jesus, help them to find my vein,” her name had become a household word, not only in the United States, but around the world.
Bush revealed his true feelings to the journalist Tucker Carlson. Bush mentioned Karla Faye Tucker, who had been executed the previous year, and told Carlson that in the weeks immediately before the execution, Bianca Jagger and other protesters had come to Austin to plead for clemency for her.
Carlson asked Bush if he had met with any of the petitioners and was surprised when Bush whipped around, stared at him, and snapped, “No, I didn’t meet with any of them.”
Carlson, who until that moment had admired Bush, said that Bush’s curt response made him feel as if he had just asked “the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed.”
Bush went on to tell him that he had also refused to meet Larry King when he came to Texas to interview Tucker but had watched the interview on television.
King, Bush said, asked Tucker difficult questions, such as “What would you say to Governor Bush?”
What did Tucker answer? Carlson asked.
“Please,” Bush whimpered, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “please, don’t kill me.”
Carlson was shocked. He couldn’t believe Bush’s callousness and reasoned that his cruel mimicry of the woman whose death he had authorized must have been sparked by anger over Karla Faye Tucker’s remarks during the King interviews.
[Keywords: Terry Washington, George W. Bush, Governor Bush, President George W. Bush, death penalty, lethal injection, Alberto R. Gonzales, Sister Helen Prejean, Larry King, Karla Faye Tucker, Pope John Paul II, Alan Berlow, capital punishment, Sodium thiopental, Pancuronium/Tubocurarine, Potassium chloride, National Sanctity of Human Life Day, 2007, GEORGE W. BUSH, United States of America, President of the United States of America]