In Dallas and Across Texas, More and More It's Life Over the Death Penalty

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Via.
...not seeing a whole lot of action.
In the death penalty debate, Texas has a long-standing reputation for abiding by one guiding principal: an eye for an eye. But the state has increasingly chosen to holster its lethal-injection needles in recent years, with death-penalty sentences decreasing by more than 70 percent since 2003, according to an annual report by the The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP). Eight new sentences were handed down in 2011, the lowest number since 1976, when the state's death penalty statute was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dallas County has historically been a leader in putting murderers to death, but District Attorney Craig Watkins has taken a more nuanced approach, one that stems from being personally torn about sentencing a person to the ultimate punishment. Since taking office in 2007, his office has won just seven death penalty sentences. This year marks the first time in five years that no new death penalty sentences were imposed in Dallas County, according to the TCADP report.

"Anyone with a reasonable mind could come to the conclusion that we've executed a person -- not just in the state of Texas but in the country -- that we've executed a person who didn't commit the crime," Watkins tells Unfair Park, adding that his work on exoneration cases gives him pause about the death penalty.

Watkins says he pursues the death penalty in cases that have both DNA evidence and a confession -- cases where "guilt or innocence is not an issue."

The Dallas Morning News reported that Watkins "flips and flops" on his death penalty stance, opposing it when he first took office, then implementing it where he saw fit. But Watkins insists: "My approach hasn't changed." The issue is responsible for a constant push-and-pull between his legal views and his moral and religious beliefs, he says.

"When I'm sitting in church on Sunday morning ... obviously I'm against the death penalty," Watkins says. But when he's behind his desk at the Dallas County courthouse, it's a different story.

"So it becomes, 'Craig, why do you pursue the death penalty if moralistically and religiously you have a problem with it?'" he says, posing the obvious question. His answer: "If and when we get cases where the death penalty applies according to the law, then I have a responsibility to pursue it."

He says he constantly questions whether a person should lose his life, even if he's taken someone else's. But as an elected official, he says, it's not only up to him; he must sideline his personal views for what he feels is legally prudent.

In a case several months ago, Watkins's office called for Jonathan Bruce Reed to be put to death for a 1978 murder. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted Reed a new trial in 2009, citing an unfair jury selection. But when Reed was convicted, Watkins's office withdrew its push for a death sentence, providing only a vague somewhat confusing press release for explanation.

Leaving behind press release jargon, he explains the prosecution's rationale, providing more specific insight into his complex, sometimes seemingly contradictory, views on the death penalty, an issue he readily admits he's still grappling with. Watkins says his office initially "went in with the position that this person should lose their life because of the crime that they committed."

But DNA evidence changed that. Though Reed was found to have committed the murder beyond a reasonable doubt, biological evidence did not support the conviction. DNA testing that could have added even more weight to an already solid conviction proved indeterminate.

"He committed the crime without a doubt, but you know, DNA is a hell of a thing to overcome, especially in Dallas County," Watkins says. The evidence "raised questions," and that was enough to steer the prosecution away from seeking death. "What sense did it make for us to pursue the ultimate punishment against someone?" says the district attorney. DNA evidence and a confession -- that's the bar Watkins insists he set for a death sentence, and this case didn't meet the standard.

Which is why the number of new Dallas death penalty sentences remained at zero last year, and why Texas's lethal injection room is, compared to years past, so vacuous these days.


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10 comments
Jessica
Jessica

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RTGolden
RTGolden

It is an impossibility to compose a compelling, morally sound, one-hundred percent applicable position on the death penalty.  I myself find it difficult to argue for it or against it.  On one hand, the taking of a life is the most grievous of acts, an act from which there is no return, and no chance of absolution.  You can't give the life back.  On the other hand, a person who takes another's life in the commission of a crime, or in the grip of emotion, deserves to have his life taken as well.It is a minefield of a topic, both sides of the argument have their strengths and weaknesses.  It makes for great philosophical debate.  For now, it is the law of the land, and as such, I support it.  Were the majority of citizens to vote to eliminate the death penalty, I'd have no problem supporting that as well.  While I don't much like Watkins, I can't fault him for his struggle here.

trudat
trudat

...and so finally, Texas begins to get in step with the rest of the civilized, industrialized world...

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin

Is murder down statewide? If so, I would imagine that might be a reason that death penalty cases are down as well.  Or have the parameters for 1st or capital murder changed?

Nitrous
Nitrous

I can understand the ambivalence here but some things are really not best decided by a concensus vote.  If, for example what are not accepted as fundamental human rights were left to the democratic process, Gay marrage would not be possible and I dare say, civil rights would be considerably different than they are now. 

I suspect that there is a significant majority of people in the middle east who believe that stoning, for some crimes is acceptable.  Sharia Law seems so archaic and unreasonable but "an eye for an eye" as is often stated in Christian Doctrine is also open to debate.  In fact, a great man once said that if an eye for an eye is the driving concept of justice, we will have a blind planet.

So, from my perspective even a person such as Riva, who literally asked for the death penality (confessing his crime as he did) would not be put to death.  At the very least, this would be state sanctioned suicide, at the worst it is a criminal evading justice by taking a far easier way out.

There is nothing positive to be said about the death penalty, especially in a country that seeks to advance a moral stance to the rest of the world.

Nitrous

scottindallas
scottindallas

incarceration for life certainly takes the murderer's life away, and for a fraction of the cost of the death penalty.  (literally 1/5-1/7th the cost)  Considering the many acquittals of persons on death row, it doesn't seem prudent to abridge the "super due process" afforded death penalty cases.  Further, the asking for the death penalty creates two extra trials in the initial trial phase, one case to determine if it merits death penalty consideration and another, upon sentencing to determine if the death penalty is warranted considering all the information presented in the trial proper.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin

as opposed to what? Cali, where the jails are so overcrowded and so jacked they released murderers back into public

Guest
Guest

Murder is down overall, but another big driver of the move away from the death penalty is the creation of the Life Without Parole sentence a few years ago.

Guest
Guest

Last I read, Texas had more people in prison than California, despite California's higher overall population (we have over three times the number of people in prison in Texas now than we had in 1990 when the crime rate was much higher). And even at our highest, we were only executing a relative handful of prisoners every year.

We just used more of our tax dollars than California to build jails and prisons (in many counties, jails were sold to the public as revenue generators - they were built bigger than the county needed on the theory that the excess capacity could be leased out to other counties and other jurisdictions. But just like in the great "we've got to build more convention center space and government owned hotels to compete" race, this has led some counties into financial difficulties when the excess capacity could not be leased to projections).

We also have quite a few counties in which alternative sentencing and diversionary programs have met with various degrees of success. If these programs continue to have success and are expanded, we should see a reduction in our non-violent prison population.

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