Dallas district attorney urges review of death penalty

The Associated Press/LM Otero

DALLAS — 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 Associated Press.

More than two 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 experiences.”

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 third 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, Paula.

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.”

DNA evidence

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 two states. An additional five 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. Thirteen were executed last year, a 15-year low. Twelve 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 said.

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,” Watkins said.

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.

Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/2012/02/23/3758995/watkins-urges-review-of-death.html?storylink=addthis#.T0fAbCU6lj0.facebook#storylink=cpy

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