Gov. George W. Bush on Friday spared the life of a death row inmate who once confessed to killing 600 people, commuting Henry Lee Lucas' sentence to life in prison after doubts about his guilt in the so-called "Orange Socks" slaying were raised.
Bush issued the reprieve on the recommendation of the state parole board, the first time the Republican governor has commuted a death sentence since he took office more than three years ago.Lucas was scheduled to die by injection Tuesday.
"I can only thank them for believing the truth and having guts enough for standing up for what's right," Lucas said from death row.
The governor's decision in no way gives any chance of freedom to the infamous one-eyed drifter once considered among the nation's most prolific serial killers.
Lucas, who recanted confessions to some 600 killings nationwide, still faces six other life sentences and 210 years in prison for nine other murders.
"Henry Lee Lucas is unquestionably guilty of other despicable crimes for which he has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison," said Bush, in Brownsville for a conference of U.S.-Mexico border state governors.
"However, I believe there is enough doubt about this particular crime that the state of Texas should not impose its ultimate penalty by executing him."
His lone death sentence came from a San Angelo jury in 1984 for the rape and strangulation of an unidentified woman whose body, wearing only orange socks, was found on Halloween 1979 in a ditch north of Austin.
No witnesses or physical evidence linked Lucas to the crime, but he confessed four times. He now says he was lying and various investigations have raised questions about his guilt. Work records and a cashed paycheck indicated Lucas might have been in Florida at the time the victim was killed.
"At the time it made its decision, the jury did not know and could not have known that Henry Lee Lucas had a pattern of lying and confessing to crimes that evidence later proved he did not commit," Bush said.
Jim Mattox, who as attorney general in 1986 launched an investigation that indicated Lucas may be innocent, applauded Bush's move.
"Gov. Bush's decision will make our death penalty punishment strong-er than ever," said Mattox, who is seeking the office again.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles this week voted 10-8, the minimum needed, to ask Bush to give Lucas a 270-day reprieve and voted 17-1 to recommend the death sentence be commuted to a lesser penalty.
Lucas, who at 62 would have become the oldest person executed by the state, is the first inmate to have a death sentence commuted since Phillip Daniel Tompkins was spared in July 1990.