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Will Capital Punishment Be a Hot-Button Issue in Campaign 2000?

Aired June 13, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, the death penalty and campaign 2000. How important an issue is it? Could it hurt George W. Bush? And why isn't Al Gore saying much about it?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE, Republican Senate candidate and former Virginia governor George Allen, a Bush supporter; and in Sacramento, California Governor Gray Davis, state chairman of the Gore campaign.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

George W. Bush may not have expected that an issue which he and his opponent Al Gore agree on and which is backed by the majority of Americans could be so tricky, but this week, Bush is facing scrutiny over the death penalty. How did that issue get to front and center? Because new studies question whether death row inmates are being executed before all DNA testing which might clear them has been done.

Have innocent people been put to death because of a shoddy legal system? That's a question facing each state. Illinois Governor George Ryan put a temporary halt to his state's executions, and other governors are considering it. But what about Bush? Bush stands by the 131 executions that have already taken place in his state, but recently granted a stay for one inmate so DNA testing could be done, and he'll decide the fate of another in the coming days.

Last night, Al Gore voiced opposition to a national moratorium on executions, and today, the American Medical Association rejected calls for such a halt. Congress also took up the issue today, a Senate panel calling for more DNA testing.

So tonight, if there are problems in the system, what problems will that pose for the political candidates? Has George W. Bush been too quick to let executions take place in his state, or have his critics been too quick to point the finger at the governor because he's running for president? -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Governor, good to see you back.

GEORGE ALLEN (R), FMR. VIRGINIA GOVERNOR: Good to be with you, Bill.

PRESS: Let's start right away with this stay that George W. Bush just granted for Ricky McGinn so there could be some more DNA testing.

Now, governor, after -- for the last five years, George Bush has been practically a cheerleader for the death penalty, raising no questions, and suddenly, suddenly he grants his first stay as governor. "Newsweek" asked the American people what they thought about that, the reasons why: 59 percent of them say for political contributions; 27 only said because of the facts of the case. This is just cheap presidential politics, isn't it, governor?

ALLEN: No, it's exercising his authority and his duties as governor of the state of Texas. Every one of these cases, having gone through these myself as governor of Virginia -- we faced 26 of them in Virginia while I was governor. In each case, the clemency petitions are different. The governor of Texas can only do certain things. They can't stop it. The board of Pardons and Paroles actually makes the decisions.

All he can do is have a 30-day stay in the execution, and sometimes there are situations where evidence has come up, and they'll say, well, you know, if we have this DNA, try to see the match on blood other substances, so let's see if this person really did it.

And we have found in Virginia -- and I'm sure Governor Bush has seen the same thing -- he wants to be absolutely sure all the evidence is there to make sure that if there is some exculpatory evidence or with DNA, especially the advances in DNA, why not use this new technology, not only to convict people, but also to free those who are innocent?

PRESS: Well, the question is, I guess, why so late to the table? Two years ago, there was another case in Texas, a man by the name of Lee Hoag (ph), also accused of murder and rape. There were even more doubts about his guilt that his defense attorney wrote to the governor, asked for a 30-day stay so they could do some DNA testing, same thing as Ricky McGinn. George Bush said flat-out no. The man was executed.

Governor, the only difference I can find between these cases is one of them was 1999 and George Bush was not a candidate for president; one of them is 2000 when he is. Can you offer any other explanation?

ALLEN: Well, I don't know about the 1998 case, but I know, as a governor, I know George W. Bush very well, and one the of the most solemn, serious responsibilities one has as a governor -- and I'm for the death penalty, but nevertheless, no one wants and innocent person to go to death, and I don't think this is at all political, an George W. Bush doesn't want to have somebody who is innocent to go to death.

PRESS: Well, I don't want to be cynical here, but we are talking about politics, and we're talking about a consummate politician. But isn't this just an attempt to get back to center after his disastrous swing to the right during the primaries?

ALLEN: There's nothing wrong with being in favor of the death penalty, and having honest justice systems, and a sentence being carried out that a judge has looked at and a jury has determined at the time as so violent, heinous, or the person is such a threat; these cases get all the way through the state supreme court, they go through all the federal courts, it goes to the Supreme Court, and by the time it gets to the governor and you're looking at it at the last second, people are coming up with reasons, and I don't know if there was other evidence in that other case.

A lot of times people will come up and say, oh, we want to do another DNA test, but there already was DNA evidence, or there's a mountain of other evidence, whether it was a confession or others eyewitness it. But sometimes asking for DNA tests at the last second is simply to delay the carrying out of the sentence that the judge and jury determined was appropriate for the vile murder of someone.

MATALIN: OK, Governor Davis, it's very easy to attack Governor Bush because he's taking tough positions, tough stands, making tough calls, as governor of a state, just like you have had to do. Let me ask you about your candidate, Vice President Gore, who is also a pro- death penalty -- supports the death penalty, but he has been nowhere. The whole nation is having a discussion on this, a dialogue -- he's been nowhere to be found.

A liberal columnist is in "The Washington Post," Richard Cohen -- no friend of George W. Bush's, big friend of the libs -- has said, "If Al Gore were an American Indian of yore, his name would be Al "Finger in the Wind." How can you run for president -- how can your candidate expect to particularly take California if he can't take positions on these tough issues?

GOV. GRAY DAVIS (D-CA), GORE CALIFORNIA CHAIRMAN: Well, I think Al Gore's position on the death penalty is well known. As you know, I favor the death penalty. But as a governor, I understand the solemn weighty responsibility that a petition for clemency entails, and I think all governors treat this matter very seriously.

They do not want innocent people to die, and they ensure that the record before them, both the facts and the law, are complete, before they take action on a petition for clemency, and so it's not uncommon to see people sit back and not second guess another governor in the exercise of their clemency power.

MATALIN: I'm not suggesting, governor, that he attack Governor Bush, although that would be more the norm if he did do that. What I'm suggesting is there's legislation on the table right now, a discussion on whether or not DNA should be always submitted as evidence, particularly if it would be exculpatory.

And while President Clinton, and George Bush, and you and everybody else, your deputy attorney general has testified, they have taken a stand on this legislation. Al Gore is absent and will take no position on the DNA issue. If he -- how can he run for president? I'm not talking about governors or attacking his opponent. How can he run for president of these United States if he won't take a position on an issue that's leading the nation right now?

DAVIS: Well, first of all, there's plenty of time for positions to be taken between now and the election, and I believe this is one of a whole range of issues, such as a woman's right to choose, that give voters a sense of where candidates are on threshold issues, to see whether or not those candidates are in sync with their views.

But I do think it's very important to separate the politics of the death penalty, what is your position? -- which is fair game -- from how a given governor decides to implement his authority under the clemency power that particular state gives him. I think it's perfectly appropriate for the vice president not to comment on that, if that is his choice.

MATALIN: Well, let me give you -- let me try one more time, because he is running for president of these United States, and he is saying that George Bush is unprepared to assume that leadership mantle. Here's what Governor George W. Bush has had to say about the death penalty.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have recommended, and Senator Ellis had accepted my recommendation to grant a 30-day reprieve from the case of Ricky McGinn. Any time DNA evidence can be used in its context and can be relevant as to the guilt or innocence of a person on death row, we need to use it. We're doing so in the case of Texas.


MATALIN: This is federal legislation. Your deputy attorney general, as I mentioned earlier, was testifying today, who said, as a matter of fact, that DNA testing would overwhelm the system. Could you clarify that position? Are you against DNA testing?

DAVIS: I believe what he said was the proposed bill was overly broad, and there are cases where DNA testing would not be applicable; would not speak directly to questions of guilt an innocence. For example, I've had to deal with three cases; two guilt was not even in question. The person on death row conceded that they were guilty of the crime as charged. There were other reasons they were seeking clemency. So I think DNA testing in appropriate situations is warranted. It's not necessarily warranted in every single case, and I believe that was the point that our deputy attorney general was making today.

PRESS: Governor Allen, you mentioned that the death penalty came up 26 times when you were governor. In the last five years, since January of '95, Virginia has executed 52 people. In Texas, 131, 131: for more than any other state, far more than any other governor, George Bush, the executioner in chief. Yet he calls himself a compassionate conservative.

Is that your definition of compassion?

ALLEN: It's compassion for victims, and Governor Bush has shown as governor of the state of Texas that he will follow justice. The decisions as to whether or not this person should be executed really are in the hands of the individual who committed the violent act.

This individual has been convicted by a jury of his or her peers. This is an individual that's gone through all sorts of appeals and all sorts of evidence and so forth. And what Governor Bush is showing as an executive -- I think this helps Governor Bush to be honest with you as far as his campaign.

The vast majority of the people in this country are in favor of the death penalty when somebody with premeditation and vileness and so forth murders someone. Maybe it's a murder during a robbery, murder during a rape, murder for hire, murder of a police officer. And I think the compassion, the compassion is for law-abiding citizens. The passion is for the survivors of someone who's lost a daughter or lost a husband or lost a child.

And so the fact that people in Texas are tough on violent criminals, that's the way they are this Virginia and a lot of other states. And that's why a vast majority of people in the states have the death penalty.

PRESS: Well, I know -- I know what the people think. I've seen the polls. But the problem to me is that...

ALLEN: It's not the...

PRESS: ... George W. Bush seems almost cocky when he talks about the death penalty. Let me remind you -- he said many times during the primary. This is a little cut from George Bush during the debate out in Los Angeles.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm absolutely confident that everybody has been put to death has two things. One, they were guilty of the crime charged, and secondly, they had full access to our courts, both state and federal.


PRESS: Now, governor...

ALLEN: Well, what's cocky about that? It's very factual.

PRESS: Wait. But 13 people in Illinois, Republican Governor George Ryan found, on death row were innocent. This recent -- this study that came out yesterday from Columbia University said that 82 percent of the death cases where they were appealed, 82 percent of them got a lesser sentence because they didn't deserve the death penalty.

How can he say he knows that everyone of them is guilty? He can't say that.

ALLEN: I'm not sure your facts are straight there.

PRESS: They are straight. ALLEN: No, the reality is, the reality is, is in Illinois, Governor Ryan, looking at their procedures in Illinois and for a variety of reasons, found that there's problem, somehow, whether it's in defense, whether it's in prosecution, whatever it might.

PRESS: But do you think there are only problems in Illinois? Don't you think there must be some problems in Texas?

ALLEN: Well, if you looked at that same study -- is this the fellow from...

PRESS: Columbia?

ALLEN: Columbia. Now, what you found is that in Virginia actually the 18 percent reversal of all states, and we had the most people being executed within a certain period of time. Now what you have to do is make sure that the individual who is being charged has adequate and competent representation. It's important that you have procedures, and you also have governors who, when it's all said and done, review that clemency position.

Governor Davis I think says it for people -- regardless of whether they're Democrat, independent, Republican -- as a governor it is a very solemn and awesome responsibility, and I don't think anyone takes it lightly. You look at the evidence, you listen and read all the clemency petitions, and then go forward so you can sleep at night once that execution is brought forward.

PRESS: All right, governors, we're going to have to take a break, and when we come back, let's ask the question: With all this new evidence coming out about the death penalty, is it time for a national moratorium? Not just one state, a national moratorium on the death penalty.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Since George Bush became governor, Texas has executed 131 men and women, far more than any other state, and another 18 are scheduled to be executed before election day. But since both Gore and Bush support the death penalty, as well as a majority of Americans, this can never become a campaign issue, or can it?

That's our debate tonight with two governors, former Republican Governor George Allen of Virginia, now a candidate for the United States Senate, and Democrat Gray Davis, governor of California -- Mary.

MATALIN: Governor, Bill keeps talking about Texas and this Columbia study in which, which also measured the death penalty error rate. Texas in that study came out the third-lowest. California came up the third-highest for death penalty error rates.

So I know it's a solemn and it's a tough decision, but isn't California particularly susceptible to errors, given, for instance, the big LAPD scandal where 99 inmates were released because they had been improperly imprisoned or framed by police officers: false arrest, jury tampering? And what -- isn't it time for California to take a look at its death penalty?

And by the way, you have more death penalty -- more people on death row than any other state.

DAVIS: Well, first of all, I'm particularly concerned with issues that get to me. As I mentioned, there were three cases: two, guilt wasn't even contested. In the third case, there was conclusive blood evidence.

I do believe we're doing anything that diminish the likelihood of any reversals in the future. I'm increasing the amount of money for the habeas project, which increases funding for competent counsel. In my last case, the managing partner of the biggest firm in the state was the counsel for the death row inmate.

So we're making sure that the competency of the counsel, which was the principal reason for the reversals in the Columbia study, is no longer an issue out here.

MATALIN: So they (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the court -- the Ninth District Court ruled against her having fast-track, because one-third of those death row inmates had no -- no counsel whatsoever, no funding for counsel. That's going to be corrected.

What about the other argument by Cardinal -- your own cardinal there that says there is an arbitrariness, and the minorities and ethnic -- and -- and ethnic Americans are -- are inordinately burdened by the death penalty?

DAVIS: Well, I want to see justice administered fairly across the board. I have great respect for all religious leaders, including Cardinal Mahoney, but I do believe in the constitutional separation of church and state. My views on a woman's right to choose and the death penalty are well-known, and I make no apologies for them.

On the other hand, I do want to make sure that in every case before me the record, the facts and the law clearly point to guilt.

PRESS: Governor Allen, there are some unusual voices in this country that are being heard for a moratorium on the death penalty, including Governor Ryan, Republican of Illinois, and also evangelist preacher Pat Robertson, who says there are just too many questions. We ought to just take time out.

Don't you think that's a good idea in light of all these questions that have come up?

ALLEN: I think it's a foolish idea.

PRESS: Just time out.

ALLEN: I think -- no, I think it's appropriate for what Governor Ryan did looking at the facts and situation in the state of Illinois. That is not the problem in Virginia, it's not the problem in any other state other than maybe Illinois.

In that study that Mary was talking to Governor Davis about, Virginia had the best record, the lowest level of it, and all I know from my own experience in Virginia, if you had a moratorium, what you would do -- you would be impeding justice because some murderer would thereby be staying in prison longer, possibly killing or assaulting a correction officer, or maybe another inmate.

And so, I think the justice has delayed sufficiently enough in many of these cases with the endless appeals that take years and years, and so, to have -- just have a blanket moratorium without any -- paying attention to any of the facts in each of the states, I would think would be a very bad idea and would thwart justice.

PRESS: Well, just quickly, because we're almost out of time.

ALLEN: Yes, sir.

PRESS: But speaking of the facts, we've referenced this Columbia study, they looked at every death penalty case, over 5,800 between 1973 and 1995, and found there were serious errors in 68 percent of the cases, Governor, seven out of 10. What more evidence do you need that this is a government program that is screwed up?

ALLEN: Well, first of all, any decision on this should be made by the people, or the governors of the states.

PRESS: Of course.

ALLEN: Not by the federal government, the Congress, the president, or any of these people meddling. Moreover, some of these errors were all because of one Supreme Court decision back in 1988. What you will find is when people were resentenced, well over 93 percent were found guilty again. And for the 7 percent that were not found guilty again, a lot of that is because you have to retry the case and some of the witnesses are gone, the evidence is stale.

And so, I think that -- all I know is in Virginia it is being done properly and I think in the vast majority of the country it is, as well.

MATALIN: Well, Governor Allen, thank you for that, good luck on the Senate race. And, Governor Davis, unlike your candidate, you're a man of well-spoken and strong positions, thank you once again for joining us.

DAVIS: Thank you, Mary.

MATALIN: And we'll be back with our strong positions, closing comments on CROSSFIRE, stay with us.


MATALIN: Don't miss your chance for your online CROSSFIRE with me. Just go to right after the show. I don't want to see you online. I don't want to CROSSFIRE anymore with you. But...

PRESS: I'm going to come in with some nasty questions.


MATALIN: So something new and different.

I just love that you and Pat Robertson, the much maligned by Bill Press Pat Robertson are on the same side of this issue. This is wonderful. George Bush is making tough calls in a -- on a tough issue and your candidate is nowhere to be seen, he's pro-death penalty but he's not taking any position on all the issues that are before us now. How is he going to win? I repeat to you and I asked Governor Davis.

PRESS: Look, George Bush is not making any tough decisions, they're easy decisions for him, he just says, fry them, 130 -- you know the difference between George Bush and Al Gore? A hundred and thirty one, that's the difference, 131 on his side, zero on Al Gore.

Now, I haven't heard Al Gore speak out, I wish he would speak, I'm a abolitionist. I wish he ought to say, we ought to get rid of the death penalty. But you know, that doesn't excuse George Bush. And, Mary, you know what? There are 18 more coming by Election Day.

MATALIN: Finger in the wind.

PRESS: It's going to be 150. What a record.

MATALIN: And 18 times Al Gore put his finger in the wind to say where should he stand on this...

PRESS: This is George Bush, not Al Gore.

MATALIN: ... while Bush is making a decision.

PRESS: Bush.

From the left...

MATALIN: That's right.

PRESS: ... I'm Bill Press, good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: Al Gore is the one who's not taking any position.

PRESS: Stop it.

MATALIN: I'm Mary Matalin, join us for more CROSSFIRE.



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