District Attorney Craig Watkins, who has actively worked to free inmates
wrongly convicted in Dallas County, is calling for Texas lawmakers to review
the state's capital punishment system.
"I think it's a legitimate question to have to ask: 'Have we executed someone
that didn't commit the crime?'" Watkins said in an interview with The
More than 2 dozen wrongful Dallas convictions have been overturned, earning
Watkins a national reputation.
"I think the reforms we've made in our criminal justice system are better than
any other state in this country. But we still need reforms. And so, I don't
know if I'm the voice for that. I just know, here I am, and I have these
Among those experiences was learning about the execution of his
great-grandfather Richard Johnson 80 years ago.
According to state criminal records and news accounts, Johnson escaped from
prison three times while serving a 35-year sentence for burglary, and after his
3rd escape, he was charged with killing a man. He was convicted of murder in
October 1931 and executed in the electric chair in August 1932.
Watkins said he did not get a full explanation of what happened until he became
district attorney. His grandmother, who was a young girl when her father was
executed, still struggles with the story, according to Watkins and his mother,
While Watkins doesn't take a position on his great-grandfather's guilt, he said
hearing about it makes him think harder about whether defendants, particularly
African-Americans, are being treated fairly by the courts.
Watkins, the first African-American district attorney in Texas, said he remains
troubled by complaints that faulty evidence and prosecutorial misconduct have
been used to secure convictions. Watkins did not offer specific proposals for
changes or suggest halting executions, but he said he wanted state lawmakers to
take a look at how the death penalty is handled in counties.
"I think in Dallas County, we're getting it right," he said. "But I think the
larger responsibility is for other places to get it right."
After becoming district attorney in 2007, Watkins started a conviction
integrity unit that has examined convictions and, in some cases, pushed for
them to be overturned.
Since 2001, Dallas County has exonerated 22 people through DNA evidence -- by
far the most of any Texas county and more than all but 2 states. An additional
5 people have been exonerated outside of DNA testing. Most of those
exonerations occurred after Watkins took office. Texas has executed 478 inmates
since executions resumed in 1982. 13 were executed last year, a 15-year low. 12
former death row inmates have been freed since 1973.
Watkins says he opposes the death penalty on moral grounds but doesn't want
those beliefs "pushed upon someone else." His prosecutors have sought the death
penalty at trial in nine cases, and won them eight times. An additional four
death penalty cases are pending, according to his office. A panel within his
office reviews possible death penalty cases and votes on whether to pursue it.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, is a key supporter of legislation to expand
DNA testing and provide compensation for wrongful imprisonment. He said more
people are "taking another look" at the death penalty, but said he doubted that
immediate changes were on the horizon.
"I don't foresee a time when major changes will occur, but the discussion has
at least begun on how we make it more just and how we make it more certain that
we actually have the right guy," Ellis said in an e-mail.
Innocent people on death row?
The latest wrongfully convicted man to be exonerated in Dallas County, Richard
Miles, was formally declared innocent on Wednesday by a judge. Miles was
released from prison in 2009, 15 years after a jury convicted him of murder and
sentenced him to 40 years in prison. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last
week declared that his case was one of actual innocence.
With a handful of other exonerees watching, Watkins told the courtroom that it
was a "fair question" to ask whether Texas had executed an innocent person.
Anyone who "sits in a DA's seat" and doesn't have doubts "shouldn't be DAs," he
Watkins told the AP later that he didn't want to lecture other prosecutors, but
thought that Dallas County could be "a part of the debate."
He pointed to the exoneration case in Williamson County of Michael Morton, who
served 24 years in prison before new DNA testing showed he didn't kill his
wife. Attorneys for Morton accuse Ken Anderson, who prosecuted the case, of
keeping key facts from the defense at his trial. Morton was convicted in 1987
and sentenced to life in prison.
Anderson, now a judge, faces a special inquiry ordered last week by the Texas
Supreme Court's chief justice. State District Judge Louis Sturns of Tarrant
County was appointed to preside.
"I think the Williamson County case is a perfect example of how there may be
innocent individuals languishing on Death Row waiting for their execution,"
John Bradley, the current Williamson County district attorney, said that
"extraordinary changes" had already been made in the quarter-century since
Morton was convicted. He said Watkins and others should wait for the inquiry
against Anderson to be completed.
(source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)