In Dallas and Across Texas, More and More It's Life Over the Death Penalty
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.
Via. ...not seeing a whole lot of action.
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.