August 16, 1993 12:00 PM

THIS MAY BE GARY GRAHAM’S LAST AUGUST on Earth. The 29-year-old grade-school dropout wails in the death house at Texas’ Huntsville State Prison for his scheduled execution by lethal injection on Aug. 17. Graham, an African American, stands convicted of shooting and killing Bobby Lambert, a 53-year-old white con man, on the night of May 13, 1981, outside a Houston Safeway. But what at first seemed a cut-and-dried case of Texas justice has now become a cause célèbre. Amnesty International, numerous lawyers and, most conspicuously, the costar of the Lethal Weapon movies, actor Danny Glover, have rallied to his cause. “If Danny had not gotten involved,” says the Reverend Jew Don Boney, 41, of the Houston-based Gary Graham Justice Coalition, “Gary would have been dead four months ago.”

Glover, along with Graham’s other advocates, believes that lie was convicted on too little evidence—and that new testimony supporting his innocence has been unfairly withheld. These injustices, the groups maintain, are all too typical of the way black men are treated by the legal system. “I’m concerned about what’s happening to African-American males in this country,” says Glover. “I’m committed to making sure that this man receives a fair hearing.”

Graham’s conviction was based largely on the unshakable testimony of one eyewitness, Bernadine Skillern, 45, a black Houston school-district clerk, who still insists that Graham was the assailant on the night of the murder. Other witnesses have since come forward, saying the murderer could not have been Graham—but Texas law prohibits new evidence from being introduced more than 30 days after a conviction. “We have six witnesses who testified the man they saw was four inches shorter than Gary,” says Rev. Jew Boney. “We also have five alibi witnesses who have all passed polygraphs [and say] that Gary was with them all that night.”

Glover became involved in Graham’s case in April, soon after hearing a radio report in his hometown of San Francisco. “When I feel that there’s been an injustice done,” he says, “I get emotionally attached.” Since then, Glover has lobbied in Washington, addressed the Texas legislature and, in May, visited with Graham in prison. “We were able to touch hands and pray through the glass,” says Glover, who calls the convict “an articulate man who’s able to look at his experience from a different standpoint now.”

Not even Glover, though, is contending that the condemned man is a model citizen. Graham, the son of an alcoholic father and mentally-ill mother (who died in 1989), is a demonstrably violent criminal who was later convicted for committing 10 armed robberies in the week after Lambert’s murder. One of his victims, Richard Carter, now 34, was attacked outside a Houston nightclub. “He had a shotgun in my face,” says Carter, a glass tinter now living in Maryland. “He shoved the gun in my mouth. Later, when I saw him at trial, he kept mouthing, ‘F—you.’ ”

But, Glover maintains, the issue in this case is not Graham’s character, or even whether Graham actually killed Lambert. “I am not carrying that burden,” Glover has said. “All I am asking for is a hearing.” On Aug. 3—to the chagrin of the pro-death-penalty group that has been calling for Graham’s execution—Glover, and the movement he represents, got their wish. State District Judge Pete Lowry ordered a full hearing on the new evidence, a development that could at the very least delay Graham’s execution. Glover greeted the news with cautious optimism but adds that “to lessen the chances of having more Gary Grahams, you’ve got to improve neighborhoods, provide jobs and social services. There’s a ton of work to be done.”

If, ultimately, the Board of Pardons refuses to grant a stay of execution, will Glover stand by Graham until the end? “I’m not thinking of that right now,” says Glover evenly. “But if that day should come…. Yeah, I’ll be there.”

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE

LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles and ANNE MAIER in Houston

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