WASHINGTON (AP) June 1, 2000 -- In 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a cop killer. The decision drew criticism from liberal groups but helped the Democrat shed his party's soft-on-crime image and move toward the political middle.
Now, Texas Gov. George W. Bush stands poised to support a temporary reprieve
to a death row inmate after allowing 131 executions -- an act that may appeal
to moderate voters.
"At the end of the day, this action can leaven a developing and emerging
Bush image of a rather callous approach to the death penalty," said
Democratic consultant Paul Begala, who was part of Clinton's 1992
Bush, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, said he was "more than
likely" to grant convicted child killer Ricky Nolen McGinn a one-time
30-day reprieve as defense attorneys seek DNA testing of crime scene
McGinn's case is part of a larger political drama, with new science
reshaping the national debate over capital punishment. It also handed Bush
an unexpected opportunity to put his "compassionate conservatism"
philosophy to work and acquit himself for early miscues on the subject of
Bush jumped at the chance, signaling his intention before an appeals court
could make his position mute by granting the reprieve on its own.
"It's a case where we're dealing with the man's innocence or guilt," Bush
explained Wednesday, a day before his input was required.
Bush has been criticized for running a busy death chamber while calling
himself compassionate; there were 35 executions last year and 19 so far this
year, including one Wednesday. At least seven executions are scheduled for
Bush has spared only one death row inmate.
Rejecting pleas from the Vatican, Bush refused two years ago to keep Karla
Tucker from becoming the first woman put to death in Texas since the Civil
In a magazine interview during the GOP primaries, Bush was quoted as mocking
Tucker's plea for a reprieve. He also raised eyebrows by chuckling --
nervously, supporters said -- when asked in a debate about inequalities in
death penalty cases.
And on Thursday, Bush chose to remain on the campaign trail instead of
returning to Texas to grant the reprieve. With Bush out of state, that power
transferred to Senate president pro tem Rodney Ellis, a liberal Democrat who
had not discussed the case with Bush.
"I'm not willing to say Governor Bush is making this a political issue,"
Begala said, criticizing Bush for not returning home. "What bothers me more
is this will remind us of his cavalier attitude toward the death penalty."
Begala was working for Clinton in 1992 when the candidate interrupted his
presidential campaign to be on call for the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a
40-year-old man who defense attorneys said was mentally incompetent. Rector
shot himself in his head after killing a police officer.
Arkansas law did not require Clinton to be in the state for the execution.
Critics said he was using Rector to redefine himself and his party.
In a speech to a predominantly black audience shortly after the execution,
Clinton displayed his knack for using wedge issues like the death penalty to
prove himself a "new Democrat" without alienating his party's liberal
"Last night, I thought of Mr. Rector and also of Robert Martin, the police
officer who was killed in cold blood ... and I prayed that I had not made
the wrong decision," Clinton said.
Equally adept at finding the political middle ground, Bush brags about his
death penalty record while promising to support DNA testing to "erase any
doubts" about a condemned inmate's guilt.
"This will help him with moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans and
ticket-splitters," said Mike Lawrence, associate director of the Public
Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
Bush and Democratic rival Al Gore support the death penalty, as do
two-thirds of the public. But polls suggest growing concern over whether
innocent people are put to death, with advances in DNA testing raising
questions about the certainty of capital murder convictions.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in May showed that a majority of people
would be more opposed to the death penalty if an innocent man were put to
Earlier this year, Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois imposed a
moratorium on capital punishment in his state after 13 death row inmates
were exonerated. The New Hampshire legislature voted last week to abolish
the state's death penalty, though the governor vetoed the bill.
And on Thursday, Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia ordered new DNA
testing for a convicted rapist and murderer.
Gilmore said nobody should be surprised when a governor -- even a Republican
-- takes a second look at a murder case. "All three of us -- Governor Bush,
Governor Ryan and myself -- are all chief executives. We're the people every
day who have to make decisions, some of them life-and-death decisions," he
said in a telephone interview.
In Illinois, one poll showed that two-thirds of state voters approved of
Ryan's moratorium. "I don't know anybody who wants to put an innocent man
to death," Ryan said by telephone.
He said his action was not about politics, "it was just common sense."