Why did Bush commute Henry Lee Lucas' sentence?

Enough with all these thread bashing Bush’s record as President.

Let’s talk about his record as Governor.

Okay, seriously, it’s an old issue but I was just reading an old article about Bush’s decision in 1998 to commute the death sentence of Henry Lee Lucas to life imprisonment.

I understand that there were questions about Lucas’ guilt for the specific crimes he was convicted of. But Bush had shown he was willing to ignore issues like that with other people whose guilt was much more questionable than Lucas’. Why would he have had qualms about executing Lucas that he didn’t have for anyone else?

I also understand there may have been a political element involved. Bush was already considering a Presidential run in 1998 and it was likely his record of zero commutations would be a campaign issue. But why pick Lucas if he was looking for a symbolic commutation? Was it just the timing?

Let’s try to keep this reasonably on topic.

I don’t think the other people’s guilt was more questionable than Lucas. It’s my understanding that when the murder that Lucas was sentenced to death for was committed, Lucas was out of the state.

I’m talking overall guilt (which admittedly is not a legal standard). I’m sure that Lucas did not commit all of the murders he’s claimed at various points. But I’m also sure that he has committed murder.

There were other people who were executed under Bush’s signature for whom a reasonable argument can be made that they did not commit any serious crime.

Texas Criminal Justice does for “oxymoron” what Gibraltar does for “rock”.

It also seems as if Bush did it as an intentional shot to death penalty opponents: “Okay, you want me to commute sentences? Fine, I’ll find the worst killer in the entire Texas prison system and commute his sentence. Now how do you feel about commutations?”

But I have a hard time believing this. Bush was after all planning on running for President. He must have known he couldn’t afford to intentionally insult potential voters. I feel his plan must have made some kind of sense even if I can’t see it.

The evidence doesn’t support that.

In death-penalty cases Bush operated in a very legalistic framework - there were numerous other actors in play, and he generally let them go about their jobs. This extended even to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles - I don’t have figures but he seemed to defer to them.

In the Karla Faye Tucker case the board didn’t recommend clemency, so Bush didn’t commute the sentence and she was executed. For Lucas, he had recanted many confessions, including that for the case that had gotten him the death penalty in the first place. He was clearly guilty, but without retrying him there was now not quite a clear case for the capital murder offense, which is why the board recommended commutation. Bush concurred, and Lucas died in prison before he could be retried on capital murder.

Here is a link that supports much of what I said. An interesting story there is that Bush’s anticipated Democratic opponent, Garry Mauro, was planning to run to his right on death-penalty issues.

However Mauro planned to run, Bush won reelection in a landslide and the rest is history.

Lucas was clearly innocent of that one murder for which he was sentenced to death. Bush checked to make sure there was no way Lucas would ever be eligible for parole due to his other crimes & then commuted the sentence. If he’d been sentenced to death for other murders, then the commutation would have not been justified.

True, although Bush probably could have gotten the board to recommend clemency in the Tucker case had he tried. Of course, in her case, there was no doubt of her guilt or mitigating circumstances recommending commutation, so it’s different than the Lucas case.

This is one of the few times that I can say I think Bush did the right thing.

The thing about Lucas was, he liked attention. As a result, he took credit for pretty well any murder than anyone asked him about. Many of the murders he “confessed” to were in fact committed by other people. And if you assign the blame to Lucas and close the book on such a murder, that means you leave a murderer running around free.

It’s not that Lucas didn’t deserve the needle, it’s that you don’t want to give him too much credit at the risk of letting some other murdering bastard get away with it. As a result, letting Lucas live while sorting out the truth was the better thing to do.

(note: the jurisdiction in which I currently work as a prosecutor had a murder for which Lucas claimed credit and was convicted. Just a few years ago, there was talk about reopening the case, because Lucas’s confession was spotty at best and lacking in detail, meaning that there may have been a murderer lurking about for these past couple of decades. My boss has not yet reopened the investigation.)

Bush did normally “defer” to the board. But he didn’t in Lucas’ case. Bush went to the board before they had made their recommendation on Lucas and asked them to recommend commutation, which they did by a 17-1 vote.

Wasn’t the book still closed? Lucas wasn’t executed but he wasn’t exonerrated either. As you point out, the investigation was not re-opened in your area and I presume it wasn’t elsewhere. Lucas’ commutation had no effect on bringing anyone else to justice.

Thank you for the additional information.

In any case it does seem that Bush went to some effort to ensure that procedures were followed well - I have to credit him for that.

This despite my growing unease with the death penalty in general.

I don’t know anything about the Lucas case in particular, but I remember an article during the 2000 presidential campaign about then-Gov. Bush’s handling of pardons and commutations. Someone looked over the governor’s schedules pretty carefully and figured out that he spent, on average, only a minute or two on most such cases, IIRC. Might not have been anything more than the governor saying, “So, Alberto, should I pardon this guy?”, the chief counsel saying “No, sir, I don’t think you should,” and Bush saying, “OK, then. Pardon denied.” Scribble scribble, case closed.

Which is probably more accurate than my assumption, “Because he was white and not demonstrably retarded,” though the latter might not apply to Lucas.

For the record, Bush reviewed 153 sentences of capital punishment during his term as Governor. He authorized one commutation, Lucas, and one thirty day stay of execution (in 2000) for Ricky McGinn who was subsequently executed after the stay expired.

I may be wrong, but it was my understanding that a Texas Governor could not commute a death sentence. He/she could issue only one thirty-day stay of execution, and after that only the board of pardons could issue a commutation.

That’s more or less right. In order for the governor to issue a pardon or commutation, the board has to first, by vote, give him permission to.

It does seem that the Texas system is designed so that everyone involved can claim that somebody else made the final decision.

Yes, the reason Texas set the rule in 1936 so that the Governor cannot commute a sentence without the board recommending it, is because of an earlier governor - and his wife, who was governor also - were believed to have been selling commutations.

We’ve had a lovely group of governors from Texas.

Most of the time, when a political leader does something unexpected, you can dig a few millimeters deep and find a perfectly logical self-serving explanation.

However, this is George W. Bush. My guess is that he commuted Lucas’s death sentence because he prayed about it and Jeebus told him to.