views on death penalty may be changing again
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has again shifted in his
ever-evolving posture on the death penalty and left the public hanging on one
of the most serious issues his office deals with.
In baring a painful family secret last week — that his great-grandfather was
put to death in the electric chair for murder in 1931 — Watkins reiterated his
qualms with Texas’ system of capital punishment.
His exact words, spoken in open court as cameras and microphones were trained
on him: “People don’t know that my great-grandfather was executed by this
state. And so that’s an issue we need to explore, as it relates to our justice
system. Are we doing the right thing?”
Spoken by most anybody else, it’s a welcome question, from the standpoint of
this newspaper’s opposition to capital punishment.
But since Watkins wields the power of life and death, he has a responsibility
to stand and see the discussion through. What he specifically meant by “the
right thing” we can only guess, since he has declined requests for a follow-up
interview. Watkins did add that his office will continue to pursue
death-penalty cases, but is he now contemplating new procedures in his office?
Watkins later told The Associated Press that Texas has made important criminal
justice improvements, “but we still need reforms.” He worried that the state
might have executed an innocent man, but how does he recommend the state should
Now in his second term as DA, Watkins deserves credit for many reforms,
including a conviction-integrity unit, a voluntary review of all death
sentences and discovery of old cases where prosecutors failed to provide
exculpatory evidence to the defense. At the same time, Watkins has struggled to
define his views on capital punishment and has seemed on different sides of the
Appearing ambivalent will inevitably draw into question his handling of
specific cases. It makes him easy prey for critics who say he did a turnabout
in the case of Thomas Miller-El, a man he once said “should have been dead a
long time ago” but who now is serving a life sentence Watkins approved in 2008.
Last year, Watkins decided without explanation to abandon plans to pursue
execution for Jonathan Bruce Reed after his 3rd capital conviction for
murdering Braniff flight attendant Wanda Jean Wadle.
This newspaper believes that no system of capital punishment could be designed
to eliminate the possibility of error and guarantee even-handed application
across race, class and geography. For that reason, we favor a moratorium on
executions and a fearless review of the archaic practice of killing people in
the name of the state.
To be sure, an overwhelming percentage of Texans disagree and support the
option to exact lethal justice. That makes it doubly important for a reformer
such as Watkins to come to the arena prepared to argue his case fully and
clearly, as any lawyer should.
DA on the death penalty
“He needs to be on death row.” — January 2007, regarding Dallas killer Thomas
“It depends on which day you ask me. … I’m sitting here at my desk looking at
some autopsy photos. So, yeah, I’m for it. … But when I come out of church on
Sunday morning, I’m against it.” — November 2007, to Newsweek magazine
“Give him what he deserves: the death penalty.” — December 2008, delivering
closing arguments at the capital trial of Robert Sparks
“I came in with a certain philosophical view. I don’t have that anymore. … From
a religious standpoint, I think it’s an archaic way of doing justice. But in
this job, I’ve seen people who cannot be rehabilitated.” — August 2010
“Are we doing the right thing?” — Feb. 22, 2012
(source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)