A Call for Justice

Houston Chronicle

A Call for Justice : Graham Supporters, Accusers Dig in as Execution Date Nears

June 18, 2000, Sunday 4 STAR EDITION
Correction Appended

When Bobby Grant Lambert was gunned down in the parking lot of a north Houston supermarket on May 13, 1981, his death warranted five paragraphs in the next day's newspaper. His was one of 497 (SEE CORRECTION) homicides that year.
But with the approach of Thursday's scheduled execution of Gary Graham, the man convicted of pulling the trigger that night, the story is front-page news in Houston and far beyond.

Amid a growing national scrutiny of the way Texas administers the death penalty,
Graham's legion of supporters loudly maintains that Graham was sentenced to die for a murder he didn't commit, that his case represents all that is wrong with capital punishment. More than 2,000 people have written the governor's office pleading for mercy.

But many others - not as vocal but no less passionate - say those people have picked
the wrong guy to crusade for. "I think they picked the wrong defendant, because he's guilty," said Roe Wilson, an appellate specialist in the Harris County district attorney's office. "I think it's a huge campaign for public opinion. What we have to look at is what the courts have decided. The courts are the place where cases are tried."

On opposite ends of this emotional debate are Sister Jean Amore, a nun who has been involved with the Graham case since his mother visited her church in 1985 to ask parishioners to write her son in prison, and David Spiers, a Houston car salesman who still bears the shotgun scar from, he says, a near-fatal encounter with Graham during a weeklong robbery rampage in May 1981. Amore, a former Houston resident who now serves in the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God order in West Paterson, N.J., has visited Graham many times on death row. She is back in town this week to support Graham's family, and she has sent 1,000 copies of a letter requesting a conditional pardon for him to churches and friends all over the world to send to Gov. George W. Bush.

She also prays Psalm 70 on Graham's behalf: "Let those who seek my life be discomfited
and dismayed, let those who desire my hurt be turned back in disgrace." Amore said she believes Graham's relatives, who claim that he was at his grandmother's house the night Lambert was slain. She believes them even though Graham's trial lawyer says his client could never prove his whereabouts that night. She believes them even though a judge in 1988 heard from two of four alibi witnesses who had come forward years after the trial, and ruled they were not credible. The witnesses included a cousin and a woman who had married Graham. "I firmly believe what the family said," Amore said. "I know the man. I just believe in him."

When Graham's execution was halted last year, Amore said, she and other supporters celebrated with a cake that declared, "How great is God."

In Houston, Spiers has been praying for the execution to go through. He hopes to celebrate Thursday with champagne. Spiers said that on May 16, 1981, he was robbed and shot in the thigh with a sawed-off shotgun. From a hospital bed, he identified Graham as the shooter to police. "It's mind-boggling," said Spiers, who lost some agility because of the wound. "Here (in the Lambert case) you have an eyewitness. This lady saw this guy. I don't understand why they picked him to try to get rid of the death penalty. "That guy tried to take my life. He shot me with the intent to kill. "Is Gary Graham capable of murder? Absolutely."

Spiers was showing off Houston's downtown skyline to his fiancee's parents, who were
in town for a first-time visit from California. Taking the Katy Freeway toward home, his car broke down. A Cadillac pulled up, and a nicely dressed black man offered him a ride to the next exit to use the phone. Spiers hopped in the back seat behind a female passenger. Suddenly, he said, "things went crazy." The driver began cursing and demanded his wallet, said he was going to kill him and pulled out a shotgun. Spiers, heart racing, struggled for the weapon and was shot in the leg.

Somehow, though, Spiers managed to wrest the gun away. He blew out the windshield trying to shoot his attacker. Rain and glass poured into the car, he recalled, and the driver told his companion to finish him off with another gun. The ordeal ended when the car slammed into another vehicle; Spiers leapt to safety as the driver fled the scene.

At the time, Graham was a 17-year-old father of two. He was a dropout whose criminal record included four probationary sentences in juvenile court between 1977 and 1980 and a trip to the State of Texas School for Boys in Brownwood in 1981. It was after he was paroled from there that Graham embarked on a series of violent armed robberies. He confessed to many of the crimes, but has denied killing Lambert.

Police eventually traced 22 crimes to Graham, beginning with the Lambert murder and
ending with the rape and robbery of a taxi driver May 20, 1981. He was convicted of 10 armed robberies over that weeklong period. Police did not pursue the Spiers case, and he did not testify in Graham's capital murder trial.

The Safeway on Gulfbank at the North Freeway didn't close when Lambert, 53, staggered inside after being fatally shot with a .22-caliber pistol. Customers reportedly walked over the body. Ronald Hubbard, a 16-year-old high school student at the time, remembers having to mop up the blood.

It turned out that Lambert was not the most sympathetic victim. Federal authorities were acquainted with him enough to tell Houston detectives that Lambert could be involved with anything from dope to gambling. He had been arrested in Oklahoma City the previous October for flying a plane carrying 40,000 Quaaludes and several ounces of cocaine. He was from Tuscon, Ariz., but was staying in a motel near the Safeway. In his van, police found marijuana, several guns and a variety of driver's licenses. He died with $6,000 in his back pocket.

As Lambert walked from the store back to his van that night, witnesses said, a black man in a white jacket and dark pants approached him. Customer Bernadine Skillern was sitting in her car directly across from them. When the gunman put a pistol to Lambert's head, Skillern blew her horn. The gunman turned to look at her. There was a pop, Lambert dropped his bag of groceries and the other man fled. She followed him in her car until her screaming children made her stop.

Detectives followed several leads. One woman thought the killer's description matched that of a man she saw breaking into a house the previous summer. Three young boys who also witnessed the murder thought they also recognized the gunman.

The break in the case came when Graham was arrested May 20 after robbing and allegedly raping the taxi driver. He fit the description of Lambert's killer, and the multiple robberies he was suspected of fit the pattern. He was arrested with a .22- caliber pistol. (Tests eventually proved the gun was not the weapon used to kill Lambert, but authorities noted that Graham used different guns in the robberies. Jurors did not learn that he was arrested with the .22 until the punishment phase of the trial, when they heard testimony about the crime spree and several firearms that were involved.)

Detectives showed Skillern photos of black men, including the shot taken of Graham after his arrest. She picked out Graham after some hesitation. Shown a live lineup of five men on a police stage, she again picked out Graham. She identified him at trial and has continued to do so ever since. Last week, she made a rare public appearance to reiterate her confidence in Graham's guilt, stating that she had seen him, "full face," three or four times.

But supporters of Graham continue to attack her certitude.

They point out that Skillern had described a suspect with a lighter complexion (SEE CORRECTION) and a thinner face. Lawyer Jack Zimmermann and others also say the photo array was unfair because Graham's photo was the only one that matched the initial description Skillern gave. Zimmermann also said some of the information on the arrest placard had been deleted, which could have drawn her attention.
Both Hubbard and another Safeway employee at the time, cashier Sherian Etuk, say they clearly saw the person wearing a white jacket before the fatal shot was fired. They describe a man between 5-foot-3 and 5-foot-5. (Graham is 5-foot-10.) Hubbard watched the same live lineup as Skillern but did not recognize anyone.

Now a local pastor and postal employee, Hubbard said in a recent interview that he passed the man in the white jacket while rounding up shopping carts in the parking lot before the shooting. The man was standing against a column near the store under a lighted area, and he appeared to not want to be seen. Hubbard said he is sure of the height because he compared it to his mother's. "He (Graham) is not the person I saw that night," said Hubbard. "They will be putting an innocent man to death."

Etuk said she stared at the man with the white jacket for a long time during lulls between customers. She thought he was checking her out. He was leaning against the column outside the store. Etuk said she is sure of the height because her ex-husband was 5-foot-3.
She, too, thinks Graham is not the killer.

Prosecutor Wilson said the case against Graham was solid, and still is. "We try hundreds of cases that just have one eyewitness, cases with no eyewitness," Wilson said. "The jury is supposed to make a credible finding. "There are cases with no physical evidence, no murder weapon."

On death row at the Terrell Unit in Livingston, Graham has booked interviews all day Wednesday, the day before his execution. In a recent interview, the inmate acknowledged the assistance of high-profile supporters - they include actor Danny Glover, U.S. Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, even Mumia Abu-Jamal, an outspoken death row inmate in Pennsylvania – as well as many lesser-known people who have adopted his cause. "Their support has been critical and key to keeping me alive," he said. "Without that community support, (Harris County District Attorney) Johnny Holmes would have been able to murder me a long time ago. It has been the people.
"It's been all around the country and around the world. "I'm hoping, with the support of the people, I'll have many more years to do positive things."

Graham stressed his innocence with exhibits from a bundle of legal papers, but he was not willing to talk much about his criminal history, his children or his life behind bars.
The information he finally yielded was sketchy. He grew up on the northeast side of Houston, in the Fifth Ward. His father drank, he said, and his mother suffered from mental problems. He became a father as a teen-ager.

But, as he began reflecting on his African-American heritage, Graham began to view his imprisonment in more political terms. In 1995, he started referring to himself as Shaka Sankofa. He often slammed the prison system in a Catholic-supported newspaper, the
Endeavor. He has even written a book while on death row called "Let the Evidence be
Heard," which he hopes will help youths stay out of trouble.

Barring intervention by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, whose 18 members
were appointed by Bush, the man who took his case to "the people" will die on Thursday.
He promises not to go quietly.

Bobby Hanners remembers riding in his grandfather's twin-engine plane as a child. He
emembers how Bobby Lambert helped him hide from his mother after he accidentally set fire to her car. And he remembers the day his mother met him at the top of the hill after school to tell him that his grandfather was dead. So the boy grew up hating Gary Graham, a man he never met but saw on television declaring his innocence. Hanners said he isn't convinced by the "new evidence" supporters say could free Graham; his eyes seem evil. He wants to witness Graham's execution. "I feel like justice needs to be done," said Hanners, who has kept abreast of the case through the Houston-based crime victims group Justice for All. "He's had more than enough court hearings. I think it needs to be closed. It's been like a never-ending story."

Graham's stepmother is frustrated, too. Elnora Graham recalled recently that when she went to visit him in county jail early on, he told her, "Mama, I didn't do it." She still believes it. "It's been hard to get out there to fight for his life and can't get anyone to listen," she said. "No one will listen. I know my child. In '81, he told me he didn't do it. That's what I've been living on."

The family tried to hire a lawyer for Graham but could not afford one. Ron Mock was
appointed instead. Elnora Graham blames Mock for her stepson's being on death row. "All I have heard and seen, he did nothing to defend him in no sort of way," she said. "It hurts. He did nothing on that case to try to win it. There's a lot Ron Mock could have brought up. I feel like it's Ron Mock's fault." If there is anything Graham's supporters attack more than the ID Skillern made, it is the job Mock did at trial. His defense in the Graham case was simple: try to keep his other robberies and assaults from making it into the trial. Mock said he did not call witnesses to rebut Skillern because he feared in doing so, he might open the door for prosecutors to bring up those other charges before the jury.
"I have no problem what I did with Gary Graham. I have no regrets about trial strategy. I
can go home and sleep," Mock said. "He could never remember where he was that night.
Gary's problem was Gary's problem." At one point, he said, Graham said he was with a
girlfriend, but he couldn't provide a name, time or location. Mock said he remembers two women coming to the courthouse one day to testify for Graham. But he didn't get their names and they were gone before he got a chance to interview them.

Hubbard and Etuk were not called to testify about what they saw. They say they were not
even aware there had been an arrest in the Lambert murder.

With Graham's scheduled execution, his supporters have turned up the volume of their public protests. In their chants, they call Bush a serial killer and charge Holmes with genocide. To them, Graham is the best example of why the death penalty needs to be done away with. He was poor, black, a juvenile from a dysfunctional family. He had poor legal representation at trial. But they also credit Graham's case with shedding light on a broken system. "Gary has contributed in a major way to the movement," local activist Joanne P. Gavin said. "We're laying the foundation just by getting the people talking about it."

Many things have changed in the years Graham has been on death row. The Safeway where Bobby Grant Lambert was shot dead is no more; in its place is a used car dealership. Ron Mock says he doesn't have to take death penalty cases anymore because he's rich. Cancer claimed Graham's father, Willie Graham, in 1996. His birth mother, Thelma Sampy, died of pneumonia in 1989. The two children Graham fathered as a teen have both made him a grandfather. His son, Gary Lee Hawkins, currently is charged with killing a man for his rent money.

Bobby Hanners hopes that after Thursday he can go to his grandfather's grave to tell
him it's over, that Graham is dead. And Elnora Graham hopes for yet another chance to prove that her stepson is the wrong man. "I don't think anyone will be prepared to lose a loved one," she said. "If they would give us a day in court we would win it."

CORRECTION-DATE: June 20, 2000
CORRECTION: This story incorrectly stated the complexion of the suspect described by
Bernadine Skillern. Skillern was concerned the suspect was darker.

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