Carolina case shows politics can kill you

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Bad behavior is what gets most people consigned to death row, but bad luck gets them on the execution calendar during an election year.

Meet Richard Charles Johnson, the most recent addition to the opinion-poll execution roster. South Carolina executed Johnson last week amid a firestorm of controversy, more than reasonable doubt and, you guessed it, a gubernatorial race.

Incumbent Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, faces strong competition from Republicans, whose leading contender seems to be fire-breathing, pro-death-penalty Attorney General Charlie Condon.

To objective observers, Johnson's bid for clemency was a no-brainer. The facts were compellingly in his favor. But to those who measure time by elections, he didn't stand a chance. Johnson had to die because — make no mistake — we are tough on crime 'round here.

Among the facts that would have made clemency an easy choice for Hodges is that Johnson was convicted of killing a South Carolina state trooper on the testimony of two hitchhikers he picked up after stealing a motor home. The owner of the motor home, C. Daniel Swanson of Fairfax, Va., also was killed. Johnson pleaded guilty in Swanson's death and got a life sentence.

The two hitchhikers, who received immunity from prosecution, were of dubious integrity. One of them, Connie Sue Hess, told police immediately after Johnson's murder conviction that she had lied on the stand when she fingered him as the triggerman. She was the one who shot the trooper, she said.

But then, what is Hess' word? On still another occasion, she said that her fellow hitchhiker, Curtis Harbert, pulled the trigger. She also blamed Harbert for killing Swanson. Thus, on the testimony of a woman who changed her story at least twice, the state convicted Johnson and killed him. The court ruled Hess' testimony unreliable.

Confounding Johnson's case was the absence of any physical evidence. When police tested Johnson's hands for gunpowder residue, they found none. The state failed to test for residue on Hess and Harbert's hands during the critical time period.

In other words, the state convicted Johnson without physical evidence and without a credible witness. Such are the surface details.

No one envies a governor's awful duty to determine when and whether to grant clemency. But increasingly, death-penalty cases have become vehicles for political grandstanding rather than fresh opportunities for justice. Hodges is but the most recent among a host of governors who opt for someone else's death over their own political demise.

(E-mail Kathleen Parker at kparker@kparker.com.)