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Politics of death.

Gary Alvord, who had spent most of his adult life in Michigan mental institutions before escaping to Florida and murdering three women in 1973, will soon be removed from Florida's death row and sent to a state asylum, where he belongs. Alvord was scheduled to be executed on November 29. Three days earlier, a panel of psychiatrists chosen by Florida's Gov. Bob Graham concluded that Alvord was too crazy to be killed.

Perhaps significantly, the psychiatrists made their findings, and Graham issued his stay of execution, just a few days after a front-page article in The Nation focused on the enthusiastic way in which Florida's courts and Governor Graham were marking crazy people for execution [see Robert Sherrill, "In Florida, Insanity Is No defense," November 24]. Not since the 1930s has the state allowed a condemned murderer to get off death row because of insanity.

It would be nice to think that this action shows a change of heart, a change of policy, in Florida. But that would be a naive conclusion. Good luck for Alvord does not necessarily spell good luck for other crazies. The timing of the Alvord rescue and the use of psychiatrists paid by the state, who, we may reasonably assume, are sensitive to Graham's needs, force us to the more realistic presumption that--barring further evidence to the contrary--Alvord's miserable hide was saved by bad publicity and political considerations. That makes the case all the more important, as a symbol of the cynicism that abounds in this field.

Governor Graham plans to run for the U.S. Senate two years from now, and, the rumors go, he also has Presidential ambitions. For the sake of his political future, he mustn't get national attention as a crackpot zealot, even a law-and-order zealot, and that is the image he is beginning to get. reporters from major newspapers and magazines who wander down Florida way are asking why in the last two years nine people have been executed in the Sunshine State, as compared to fifteen in all other states combined. They wonder what there is in Graham's character that has driven him to get writer's cramp from signing death warrants (about ninety in six years). Jim Henderson of the Dallas Times Herald, who visited Florida recently, wrote that some observers think Graham is killing off criminals at a record clip in an attempt to counteract a reputation, gained earlier in his administration, of being weak, "irresolute--a wimp." Henderson's article was widely syndicated. Then came The Nation piece.

Apparently that was enough to make Graham take steps to repair his deteriorating national image. For political purposes, he could well afford to "lose" one of his intended death row victims. With Alvord tucked away in an asylum, Graham can protest piously, "How can those lefties say we don't have an insanity defense?" while continuing to send other crazies to the chair. Nobody ever said Governor Graham isn't a sly fellow.

It points up once again the nasty suspicions and embarrassments that capital punishment brings to politics. When Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina executed a murderer on the eve of the last election--a woman, which drew national attention--it was commonly presumed, whether fairly or not, that he was killing her for right-wing votes. Governor Graham's execution spree was similarly interpreted by many.

Where capital punishment is exercised, it is impossible to escape unsettling political overtones, even when those over-tones are relatively humane. Louisiana has the good fortune of having a Governor, Edwin W. Edwards, who personally opposes capital punishment ("I don't think it's a thing we ought to be doing," he says) and who goes out of his way to seek evidence that might allow him to clear the way for a new trial for the condemned. A governor's attitude sets the mood in a state, and doubtless Edwards's attitude made it easier for the Louisiana Supreme Court last week to declare part of the state's death penalty statute unconstitutional. But no matter how the power structure tries to fine tune and "reform" capital punishment, so long as the death penalty exists in any form it is obvious that politics is as much a part of its administration as law and fair play. Where lives are concerned, that is a shameful admission for a society to have to make.
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Title Annotation:Bob Graham and capital punishment in Florida
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Dec 15, 1984
Words:721
Previous Article:Cap's doctrine.
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