A Compelling Case for Murder

The Houston Chronicle

A Compelling Case for Murder: Graham Backers' Claims Don't Match the Evidence

July 4, 1993, Sunday, 2 STAR Edition

Gary Graham's path to the Hollywood spotlight began on a drunken night in 1981 when police found him passed out naked in the bed of a 57-year-old woman taxi driver.
Back then, the 17-year-old Graham already was known to police as a run-of-the-mill street punk, robber and thief. On May 20 that year, his troubles got a lot bigger.

A groggy Graham was arrested and taken to jail. The taxi driver accused the black teen-ager of abducting her at gunpoint, robbing her, raping her and then passing out drunk in her bed.

But that was only the beginning. Working with eyewitness testimony, physical and circumstantial evidence, police began linking Graham to a series of violent robberies during the previous week. The trail led back to the robbery and murder of Bobby Grant Lambert, a 53-year-old white man.

Convicted of Lambert's murder in November 1981, Gary Graham for 12 years was a relatively anonymous killer among the hundreds populating Texas' death row. But in the last four months, Graham, 29, has emerged from obscurity to star in a drama that has placed him at the center of the public eye.

For weeks, Graham's name has been rolling off the tongues of Hollywood stars and celebrities. His cause has cropped up on editorial pages across the country. His face has been featured on T-shirts and television talk shows.

The case has grown beyond the question of life or death for Graham. It has become a divisive battle pitting victims of violent crime against death penalty opponents fighting for the life of a convict they claim is innocent.

The battle has been charged with allegations of racism: Graham's supporters have portrayed their struggle as a standoff between black and white, the poor and the privileged, the innocent and the blood-thirsty.

Through it all, Graham has sat on death row granting interviews and making the most of a new celebrity that has yet to blot out his violent past.

Born into Trouble

Graham was born into trouble. His father was an alcoholic. His mother, mentally ill. With his parents often absent, Graham was shuffled from home to home, relative to relative, as he grew up in the poverty and crime-ridden streets of Houston's near northeast side.

By the time he reached his teens, Graham's lifestyle wouldn't have surprised any urban sociologist: he was a seventh-grade dropout, had fathered two children and was abusing drugs and alcohol. His juvenile rap sheet was growing thick with incidents of shoplifting, robbery, burglary and car theft.

As one person who knew him back in those days observed bluntly, "He was one mean m-----------."

Graham received four probationary sentences in juvenile court between 1977 and 1980.
In 1981, he was sentenced to the Texas School for Boys in Brownwood. It was after he was paroled from there that Graham appeared to spin out of control, embarking on a frenetic series of violent robberies.

Sgt. Billy Belk of the Houston police homicide division has compiled a list of some of Graham's crimes -- those to which he can be tied conclusively through witness testimony or physical evidence. It is a record of seven days of nearly nonstop mayhem and violence.
Witnesses in his trial described the Graham that confronted them back then. He approached many of his victims with a friendly ruse, asking directions or for help.

A few minutes later, when the victim was off guard, Graham would pull a gun. Victims described a clean-cut, polite young man who abruptly turned into a shaking, wild-eyed madman, cursing, screaming racial slurs and threatening to kill.

Wallets, cash, jewelry, watches, even toolboxes were stolen. Vehicles were hijacked -- he had a penchant for Cadillacs and custom vans. And in four of the robberies, a victim was shot.

Leading off Belk's list is the robbery and fatal shooting of the 53-year-old Arizona man, Bobby Grant Lambert, on May 13, 1981.

It was Lambert's murder that brought Graham into state district court on a capital murder charge in October 1981. Lambert's murder put Graham on death row.

And Lambert's murder is the subject of a complex tapestry of half-truths and unsupportable conclusions woven by his defenders as they attempt to scrape up enough evidence to prove Graham innocent 12 years after the crime.

Police and court records give a detailed picture of what happened that warm, late-spring night in May 1981.

A Victim with a Shady Past

Bobby Lambert was a man with a shady past. He was known as a con man by authorities who had arrested him on drug charges.

He was on the outs with his family in Tucson, Ariz., and had driven to Houston where he was staying in a motel with a friend while he dropped in on a billiards tournament. In his back pocket, he carried $6,000 in $100 bills the last night of his life.

Lambert stopped at a Safeway store on the North Freeway at Gulfbank to pick up groceries about 9:30 p.m. He'd bought makings for sandwiches, a six-pack of V-8 juice, peanut butter cookies and a carton of Raleigh cigarettes.
As he shopped, a young black man was seen skulking and watching him. As the black youth left the store, Lambert made his purchase with a $100 bill.
With the bag of groceries in his arms, Lambert was on his way out to his van in the parking lot when he was confronted by his killer.
Daniel Grady, 35, had a front-row seat for the murder. He had driven his wife to the store and was sipped a beer in the driver's seat of his '72 Oldsmobile when he saw a young black man approach Lambert in the parking lot.

Right in Front of Witness

He saw the two men struggle, he saw a gun drawn and then watched Lambert drop his groceries as he tried to push his attacker away.

Grady dived to the floorboard when he heard the gunshot. He crawled out through the passenger side and saw a fatally wounded Lambert clinging to the hood of his car.
Bernadine Skillern saw it all, too. She had driven her eldest daughter to the store for last-minute school supplies, and she sat in her car with her two younger children while her daughter ran in for the items.

Skillern, 32, was parked in the next row, facing Grady's car and facing the shooting. She saw the young black man approach Lambert and quickly realized something was wrong when she saw the two men arguing. When she saw the gun pointed at Lambert's head, she honked her car's horn to scare off the robber.

The assailant turned and looked at her "for a split-second, maybe a second," Skillern testified. But the struggle continued, and she watched in horror as the youth stood back and shot the white man in the chest.

Skillern didn't duck. She started her car and followed the gunman as he quickly walked away.

Skillern said she followed him until her screaming children made her stop. But it was long enough to get closer to the fleeing killer, and it was long enough to get a better look and for her to know that the man she saw was Graham.

"I never took my eyes off him," Skillern testified.

Wilma Amos, 33, was putting groceries into her van, parked at the store's front corner, when she heard the car's horn. Amos also saw the shooting, and then watched as the killer hurried by, pausing and turning to look at her.

Amos didn't stay to talk to police. She went home and drank half a fifth of vodka to get her nerves together. Later, she called police to tell them what she saw.
Within a week, investigators brought photos for Amos and Skillern to review. Graham was not one of the faces; he was not yet a suspect. Neither woman recognized anyone in the photos.

The Perfect Match

Graham was sitting in the Harris County Jail, charged with numerous counts of aggravated robbery, when Houston robbery detectives notified the homicide division that the pattern of Graham's crimes matched with the killing of Bobby Lambert.

Homicide investigators put Graham's photo in a stack of other pictures of young black men and on May 26 took it to Skillern. With some hesitation, she identified Graham.
She worried, though, that the man she had seen kill Lambert had a darker complexion than the man in the photo. She wanted to see him in person.

By this time, Wilma Amos was proving uncooperative, according to police files. When Graham was identified as a suspect, Amos said she was ill and declined to come downtown for the lineup or to view photos in her home.

Investigators also were unable to contact Grady to view the lineup, according to police files. So when Graham walked onto the police stage with four other young black men on May 27, 1981, only Skillern and a grocery store employee, Ronald Hubbard, 17, were there.

Hubbard had told police that he hadn't seen the killer's face, but they wanted him to look anyway. Skillern picked out Graham immediately when the five men were presented. Hubbard was unable to recognize anyone.

Skillern's identification was enough for police, and Graham was charged with capital murder.

In October the same year, Grady, Amos and Skillern testified at Graham's trial. What cinched Graham's conviction was Skillern's unshakeable identification of him as the killer, said Ron Mock, Graham's defense attorney.

There wasn't anything else that prosecutors had to go with, other than general descriptions from other witnesses and technical testimony from paramedics and detectives.

Mock said he stepped carefully throughout the trial: He didn't want to say anything that would open the door to testimony about Graham's other crimes. In the end, he succeeded in that, but there was little he could do about Skillern's testimony.

"Stronger than Acre of Garlic'

"Ms. Skillern was stronger than an acre of garlic," Mock recalled. "She never wavered on her identification. I couldn't even get her to flicker. And the jury believed her."
Despite pressure from Graham's supporters, Skillern still has not wavered. Skillern, a black school clerk who scoffs at allegations that racism was a factor at the trial, is as positive today as she was in 1981 that it was Graham she saw in the parking lot that night.
"He's a criminal. He killed a man, and I saw him do it. And I just told the court what I saw," she said recently.

Jurors didn't know about Graham's crime spree when they retired to consider whether the young man had killed Bobby Lambert.

During the punishment phase of Graham's trial, prosecutors set out to convince jurors that Graham would be a continuing menace as they sought the death penalty. They brought on victim after victim, who told how it felt to be at the wrong end of Graham's gun.
To counter the damage, Mock put two people on the stand, Graham's grandmother and stepfather -- the only two people he said he could find who were willing to say anything good about the youth, Mock said.

Graham was sentenced to die.

Twelve years later, after numerous legal appeals and several stays of execution, Graham is still alive. And he wants to stay that way.
Most importantly for him, his case has been taken up by the Texas Resource Center, a federally funded organization in Houston that provides legal counsel for death row inmates, the NAACP and Amnesty International USA, both national anti-death penalty groups.

Graham's best chance rests in the nationwide publicity campaign launched by supporters. Local black activist Jew Don Boney, who successfully led the fight to get death row inmate Clarence Brandley freed, has taken up the torch for Graham.

Graham's pen pal in California, Susan Dillow, has helped mobilize West Coast interest in the case.

Actor Danny Glover, actress Farrah Fawcett (SEE CORRECTION) and singer Kenny Rogers have called for a new trial for Graham.

Creating Public Pressure

The point of the campaign is to create enough public pressure to force Gov. Ann Richards and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant Graham clemency or a new trial.
While the legal stratagems are played out in court, the key aim of the Gary Graham Justice Coalition has been to publicly portray Graham as an innocent black man victimized by a racist justice system.

To this end, his attorneys and supporters have compiled new evidence that they say proves Graham was not the killer.

In a statement he has repeated at rallies and news conferences, Boney declares: "The overwhelming weight of evidence proves that Graham is innocent of the murder of Bobby Lambert, and the most compelling evidence of his innocence comes from the crime scene witnesses."

Graham's attorneys have brought out new sworn statements by some of the original witnesses, including Amos, Hubbard and Grady's wife, that they use to bolster their case.
They have attacked the credibility of Skillern's identification and the competence of Mock, Graham's original defense attorney.

And Graham's lawyers have accused police and prosecutors of manipulating the investigation, distorting the facts and concealing or destroying crucial evidence that would help exonerate Graham.

They have brought forward two previously unknown witnesses who appeared in April saying that they, too, saw the killer of Bobby Lambert -- and it wasn't Graham.
The cornerstone of their case has been four alibi witnesses who Graham's attorneys claim have never adequately been heard in court, and whose testimony proves that Graham couldn't have killed Lambert.

In a death row interview last week, Graham said that by the sheer weight of this new evidence, justice demands that he be given a new trial.

"It's important for all that information to be heard," he said. "There is simply too much evidence to proceed with an execution."

An extensive review of police records, trial testimony, affidavits and legal briefs in this case, however, do not support the claims made by Graham's attorneys.
New testimony by old witnesses contradicts the stories they gave in 1981, and the new witnesses give details inconsistent with the facts of the case. All four alibi witnesses had a chance to be heard in court and were judged not credible in 1988.

Most of the rest of the case for Graham's innocence is a game of "whom do you believe" played out on the emotions of the public.

Ron Mock says he never had the names of any alibi witnesses; Graham says he gave them to his attorney before the trial. Bernadine Skillern says she is positive the killer she saw was Graham; Graham's attorneys say it was too dark and she was too far away to make a positive identification.

Graham says he is innocent; 12 jurors judged him a killer.

CORRECTION: Farrah Fawcett has denied that she ever was a supporter of Gary Graham. She called the Chronicle to disassociate herself from the case, saying that her support was solicited, but thatshe never gave permission for her name to be used in connection with his cause. Correction published 7/7/93.

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