The Texas Clemency Memos

As the legal counsel to Texas Governor George W. Bush, Alberto R. Gonzales—now the White House counsel, and widely regarded as a likely future Supreme Court nominee—prepared fifty-seven confidential death-penalty memoranda for Bush's review. Never before discussed publicly, the memoranda suggest that Gonzales repeatedly failed to apprise Bush of some of the most salient issues in the cases at hand
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On the morning of May 6, 1997, Governor George W. Bush signed his name to a confidential three-page memorandum from his legal counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, and placed a bold black check mark next to a single word: DENY. It was the twenty-ninth time a death-row inmate's plea for clemency had been denied in the twenty-eight months since Bush had been sworn in. In this case Bush's signature led, shortly after 6:00 P.M. on the very same day, to the execution of Terry Washington, a mentally retarded thirty-three-year-old man with the communication skills of a seven-year-old.

Washington's death was barely noted by the media, and the governor's office issued no statement about it. But the execution and the three-page memo that sealed Washington's fate—along with dozens of similar memoranda prepared for Bush—speak volumes about the way the clemency process was approached both by Bush and by Gonzales, the man most often mentioned as the President's choice for the next available seat on the Supreme Court.

During Bush's six years as governor 150 men and two women were executed in Texas—a record unmatched by any other governor in modern American history. Each time a person was sentenced to death, Bush received from his legal counsel a document summarizing the facts of the case, usually on the morning of the day scheduled for the execution, and was then briefed on those facts by his counsel; based on this information Bush allowed the execution to proceed in all cases but one. The first fifty-seven of these summaries were prepared by Gonzales, a Harvard-educated lawyer who went on to become the Texas secretary of state and a justice on the Texas supreme court. He is now the White House counsel.

Related Material:

Execution Summaries
Copies of the death-penalty memoranda on Terry Washington, David Wayne Stoker, and Billy Conn Gardner.

Gonzales never intended his summaries to be made public. Almost all are marked CONFIDENTIAL and state, "The privileges claimed include, but are not limited to, claims of Attorney-Client Privilege, Attorney Work-Product Privilege, and the Internal Memorandum exception to the Texas Public Information Act." I obtained the summaries and related documents, which have never been published, after the Texas attorney general ruled that they were not exempt from the disclosure requirements of the Public Information Act.

Gonzales's summaries were Bush's primary source of information in deciding whether someone would live or die. Each is only three to seven pages long and generally consists of little more than a brief description of the crime, a paragraph or two on the defendant's personal background, and a condensed legal history. Although the summaries rarely make a recommendation for or against execution, many have a clear prosecutorial bias, and all seem to assume that if an appeals court rejected one or another of a defendant's claims, there is no conceivable rationale for the governor to revisit that claim. This assumption ignores one of the most basic reasons for clemency: the fact that the justice system makes mistakes.

A close examination of the Gonzales memoranda suggests that Governor Bush frequently approved executions based on only the most cursory briefings on the issues in dispute. In fact, in these documents Gonzales repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence.

The case of Terry Washington was typical. Gonzales devoted nearly a third of his three-page report on Washington to the gruesome details of the crime. He informed Bush that the victim, Beatrice Huling, was a twenty-nine-year-old restaurant manager, and wrote, "An autopsy determined she suffered 85 stab wounds, seven of which were fatal, and was eviscerated." But the summary refers only fleetingly to the central issue in Washington's clemency appeal—his limited mental capacity, which was never disputed by the State of Texas—and presents it as part of a discussion of "conflicting information" about the condemned man's childhood. (The page containing this discussion is missing from the copy of the summary signed by Bush, raising the possibility that he never actually saw it before authorizing Washington's execution.) Most important, Gonzales failed to mention that Washington's mental limitations, and the fact that he and his ten siblings were regularly beaten with whips, water hoses, extension cords, wire hangers, and fan belts, were never made known to the jury, although both the district attorney and Washington's trial lawyer knew of this potentially mitigating evidence. (Washington did not testify at his trial or his sentencing.)

Gonzales's lack of attention to Washington's mental retardation is particularly surprising because demand was growing nationwide to ban executions of the retarded, and because the most highly publicized case of a retarded defendant, that of Johnny Paul Penry, was even then playing itself out in Texas courts. The miscarriages in the Washington case were also precisely the kind of thing Bush claimed to want to be told about. "I don't believe my role is to replace the verdict of a jury with my own," he wrote in his autobiography, A Charge to Keep (1999), "unless there are new facts or evidence of which a jury was unaware, or evidence that the trial was somehow unfair." Such information had indeed come to light in Washington's case, yet Gonzales's memorandum did not tell Bush about it.

Not only did Gonzales ignore Washington's mental limitations, but he didn't mention that Washington's trial lawyer had failed to enlist a mental-health expert to testify on Washington's behalf (although he was entitled to one under a 1985 Supreme Court ruling), which in a death-penalty case clearly suggests ineffective counsel. Nor did he mention that ineffective counsel and mental retardation were in fact the central issues raised in the thirty-page clemency petition. Gonzales noted only that the petition had been rejected by the Board of Pardons and Paroles, a body that one federal judge condemned in 1998 for its tendency to rule on clemency appeals without any investigation or discussion among its members.

Gonzales declined to be interviewed for this story, but during the 2000 presidential campaign I asked him if Bush ever read the clemency petitions of death-row inmates, and he equivocated. "I wouldn't say that was done in every case," he told me. "But if we felt there was something he should look at specifically—yes, he did look from time to time at what had been filed." I have found no evidence that Gonzales ever sent Bush a clemency petition—or any document—that summarized in a concise and coherent fashion a condemned defendant's best argument against execution in a case involving serious questions of innocence or due process. Bush relied on Gonzales's summaries, which never made such arguments.

Did Gonzales reserve the most important issues and documents in the Washington case for a more extensive oral briefing of the governor? Only he and Bush know. It is highly unlikely, however, given that Gonzales usually presented an execution summary to the governor on the day of an execution and that, as he has acknowledged, his briefings typically lasted no more than thirty minutes—far too little time for a serious discussion of a complex clemency plea. Bush's appointment calendar for the morning of Washington's execution shows a half-hour slot marked "Al G—Execution."

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