DA Craig Watkins Tells AP He Wants Texas to Take a Long, Hard Look at the Death Penalty

Categories: Crime
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As Leslie noted yesterday, in her piece about Judge Andy Chatham finally, officially declaring Richard Miles innocent two years after he was let out of prison, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins noted, out of nowhere, that his great-grandfather had been executed by the state of Texas. The DA, a former defense attorney, didn't say anything more than that during the hearing; only later did the details come out about the crime and punishment. As the Associated Press recaps this afternoon:
According to state criminal records and news accounts, [Richard] Johnson escaped from prison three times while serving a 35-year sentence for burglary, and he was charged with killing a man after his third escape. He was convicted of murder in October 1931 and executed in the electric chair in August 1932.
Said Watkins in the courtroom on Thursday, Miles's wrongful imprisonment only served as one more reminder, as if one were needed, that there are innocent men behind bars. Said the district attorney yesterday as he stood in front of many of Dallas County's exonerees, "I think the conversation needs to be broadened as it relates to our justice system."

The AP picked up on that and has posted today a lengthy piece in which Watkins says reform is needed in Texas when it comes to the death penalty. He's not specific; he acknowledges that much. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, the Houston Democrat, agrees: Change is needed ... but when it'll come, he too has no idea. But, again, from the AP:
While Watkins doesn't take a position on his great-grandfather's guilt, he said hearing about the incident made 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 allegations that faulty evidence and prosecutorial misconduct were 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."
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48 comments
Crap Detector
Crap Detector

What concerns me is that we have a DA who has now revealed he has a personal opinion/experience regarding the death penalty; therefore, I question his ability to remain fair and unbiased in carrying out his duties and applying the law which includes seeking the death penalty for certain crimes. I say "recuse" but not sure that can be done.

God
God

Pissing contests are fun.

holman
holman

The situation is dynamic hence, those of you who advocate the abolition of the death penalty must also shoulder part of the responsibility for the hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people who will be murdered by the people you seek to spare.

Donald Dillbeck -- Florida. Killed policeman in 1979. Escaped from prison in 1990, kidnapped and killed female motorist after escape. Condemned 1991. 

Randy Greenawalt -- Escaped from Prison in 1978, while serving a life sentence for a 1974 murder. He then murdered a family of 4 people, shotgunning them to death, including a toddler.  

Randolph Dial -- Oklahoma. Life for murder 1986. Escaped from prison with deputy warden's wife as kidnap victim. 1989. Still at large. Warden's wife never found.  

Henry Brisbon, Illinois. Murdered 2 in robbery. Sentenced to 1000- 3000 years. Killed inmate in prison 1982. Sentenced to DP. Commuted by Governor Ryan.  

Samuel D. Smith -- in prison for murdering Zita Casey, 79, during a burglary in St. Louis in 1978. While in prison he murdered another inmate, Marlin May, during a knife fight in 1987 in prison.  

Jarmarr Arnold -- who, while on DR, murdered another DR inmate by stabbing him in the forehead with a sharpen spike. Proving that not even a death sentence can prevent murder until the sentence is carried out. 

Cuhuatemoc Hinricky Peraita -- Rainbow City, Alabama, who was serving life without parole for 3 murders in Gadsden, Alabama was found guilty of capital murder for murdering a fellow inmate.  

Thomas Eugene Creech, who had been convicted of three murders and had claimed a role in more than 40 killings in 13 states as a paid killer for a motorcycle gang, killed a fellow prison inmate in 1981 and was sentenced to death.  

In 1999, a Beeville (Texas) prison guard was killed by an inmate already serving a sentence for murder. 

and that's the short list.

we can't keep them from murdering again.

The blood of future innocents is on your hands.

Dallas Diner
Dallas Diner

Texas will take a long, hard look at the death penalty and find that it is good.

Rangers100
Rangers100

There are good reasons the death penalty is now largely confined to 3rd world countries. 

Mike
Mike

In the state of Texas, the opinions of a Democratic district attorney from Dallas against the death penalty carry about as much weight as Justin Beiber's. He just does not matter. No story.

james
james

as long as our injustice system busies itself with robbing the poor things won't change.

james
james

i've always believed that ,for mad dog mean crimes, the death penalty is a great idea. if a person is tryin' to rob me with a gun or knife,offerin' to kill my family, he has lost his humanity. i would kill that mad dog as quick as i got a chance.  spending kazillions of dollars to make a big deal out of $3 worth of bullets is b.s. government waste. on the other hand, prosecutors and cops who suppress evidence in order to steal someones life to make it look like they're doin' their jobs are no better than ////worse than the mad dog killer. honest mistakes can be made, but this has been too many to believe the 'honest mistakes' line anymore. if it were me, i'd as soon be murdered by the stae as to be locked up for life wrongly. i can understand watkins' idea that we shouldn't give a person the final solution in case we're wrong. our laws say that it's better to let the guilty go free than to convict the wrong person. the problem is the joke of a justice system that fills the cages with nonviolents who are often guilty of no more than paperwork violations, while constantly releasing known mad dogs back into society. as long as this joke continues, things ain't gonna git any better for the prisoners or the citizens. if i'm on your jury, if you're a well proven  mad dog i'll try to have ya locked up for as long as possible or kilt. if they're tryin' to steal yer life fer nonviolent commie crap, i'll say not guilty. i once spent a solid week in dallas county jail for expired drivers license and no insurance and bein' broke. i've got friends who were thrown in dallas jails for a week or better in the last year for the crime of bein' poor when the dallas county gang wanted money. as long as our 'justice system' busies itself with lockin' folks up for bein' poor, they'll be too busy to handle the real problems and the cages will be too full.

holman
holman

Might want to take a look at all the innocent people subsequently murdered by killers spared the death penalty on the 1st go-round.  Some humans just need to be turned off in the name of Public Safety.  Research how many have killed again while on Death Row (guards, other inmates), upon escape, or subsequently set free.  It's in the hundreds, if not thousands.

  Not one innocent person has been put to death.

Guest
Guest

said he remains troubled by allegations that faulty evidence and prosecutorial misconduct were used to secure convictions.

After so many of these instances have been proven, do we still have to refer to them all as allegations?

Just because the appeals courts (and much of the press) protects prosecutors who choose to make a mockery of the law (usually by refusing to name them in published decisions or news reports) and just because the State Bar thinks calling prosecutors to task for violating the law and professional ethics is somehow too distasteful to actually do doesn't mean that the clear cases of faulty evidence and prosecutorial misconduct remain "alleged".

Sa
Sa

Wow.

scottindallas
scottindallas

 silly argument.  If a DA were battle hardened and believed in what he does, then you'd imagine he'd support the death penalty, he should recuse himself too?  Hell, if we took your argument to it's logical conclusion, we'd have Kim Kardashian deciding, as she and Paris Hilton are the only one's who don't have an opinion. 

I DO think we need to be more sensitive about recusing when ideological beliefs inhibit one being capable of sound analysis.  (that's why we shouldn't craft Cuba policy based on what a few pissed off exiles think, but on a cooler headed policy of engagement and dilution, which is presumably good enough for China.)  But, if we did that we'd have no institutional support for Israel, US Manufacturing, Environmental Concerns, Tax policy, as all political people have positions favoring these issues.  It's unelected judges, regulators who hold strong views, or other attachments to policies or people that are a threat to fairness.  The DA's affiliations are known, and the voters can express their approval or disapproval later. 

WatchingSouth Detroit
WatchingSouth Detroit

The one I remember is Kenneth McDuff - he was convicted of killing 2.  He was given the death penalty, but then the death penalty was suspended, was paroled, killed I think 6 more people.  This was a clear example that if the original sentence was carried out, 6 innocent people would still be alive.  

Guest
Guest

Also, nobody cares about the people who are victimized by the "real culprit" when the wrong person is sent to prison, so why would they care about anybody else?

Guest
Guest

I don't know that escapes are a non-death penalty problem. Many death row inmates stay alive long enough to potentially escape. It's the small number of death row inmates and the fact that they're in their cells almost all the time that lessens a death row inmates escape chances as much as the fact that he will eventually be executed (we're quicker to execute than most states, but even here our death row inmates stay alive for many years as their appeals wind their way through the system).

And it's basically the same for people in prison, too, who kill other prisoners.

Unless your suggestion is that we should lessen due process and put convicted murders to death faster even though it's the drawn out appeals process that has kept us from knowingly executing a person who would up being innocent.

Zacsforsale
Zacsforsale

Randolph Dial -- Oklahoma. Life for murder 1986. Escaped from prison with deputy warden's wife as kidnap victim. 1989. Still at large. Warden's wife never found.

Your data is a little old, he was found living with the wardens wife in 2005. He was never charged with the kidnapping and died in jail in 2007.

Guest
Guest

As much as I rail against dirty cops and prosecutors (and flawed evidence and procedures), I think I ultimately come around to still supporting the idea of the death penalty.

My problem comes from the fact that we outright refuse to take care of the issues that are tainting the death penalty process (and, really, the whole darn system) like the dirty prosecutors and police officers and messed up procedures (like eyewitness testimony or even recording interrogations. Whenever these things that could reduce or possibly eliminate wrongful convictions come up in the legislature, police and prosecutors fight tooth and nail against them).

Until we agree to fix the things we know are wrong, it seems wrong to still continue to give people the ultimate, can't be undone punishment.

But that's just what I think.

scottindallas
scottindallas

 If our justice budgets weren't so bloated with the outsized cost of death penalty cases, we'd have more resources to go toward keeping these very people in jail longer.  Also, legalizing/decriminalizing drugs would also keep police/justice resources devoted to violent criminals.  The USA has more people in jail than any other country on Earth.  That's in real numbers, meaning we have at least 5 times the incarceration rate of China.  We need to focus our resources on violent crime, and stop wasting money on ineffective, costly feel good programs like the drug war, and the death penalty.  You spend money worse than Democrats could ever dream, and unlike them, you get nothing from what you advocate, except bigger gov't, more crony capitalism, more injustice, and self righteous moral grandstanding

scottindallas
scottindallas

 I'd suggest that you might be mistaken.  Many cops are against the death penalty, especially those that have to work budgets.  Also, the cities of Texas are turning increasingly Democrat.  The state is turning purple, though the democratic party is incompetent here.  I honestly don't like either party at all.  But, I will predict that Obama and the Dems might well retake the House and strengthen their Senate lead.  I'm speaking nationally.  In Texas, we will remain a GOP state, though, that IS changing.  Some progressive bills could get passed, especially if put before a vote of the people.  The aging of Texans may well also turn the state more liberal.

Lh_sanders
Lh_sanders

It matters and it should be talked about.  Even your opinion is worthy.  Time will tell aboutthe eventual outcome.  Your grandparents never believed Craig could be Dallas' DA.

Rangers100
Rangers100

Which, if true, is a really sad statement on Texas.

scottindallas
scottindallas

 That assumes we're able to correctly ascertain who committed that act.  Especially since many of the mad dogs, "all look alike" to many.  Eyewitness testimony is notoriously fallible, so, erring on the side of caution and cost effectiveness is prudent and rational.  We are crafting broad policy, and life without parole is just as effective as killing the man.  There is a fair argument as to whether it's more punishing to rot in jail, or to be released from the bonds of this Earth.  But, there is no question that it costs 5-7 times more to put a man to death than it does to incarcerate for life.  Why do you want to spend so much money to sate your anger?  And, you begrudge the elderly medical help?  What a bunch of vicious policies you support.  It seems you'll spare no cost to kill and murder (bloated military) and resent helping the poor and infirm.  I somehow suspect you'd consider yourself a follower of Christ.  I'd suggest you've utterly failed to understand his message.

scottindallas
scottindallas

 if we ended the death penalty, we could incarcerate 4-6 other people for life for the cost of that big show that you so enjoy.  We know many Republicans are closeted gays, but this affinity for a show is really wasteful and expensive.  Your revenge is too expensive.  Use your brain, not your guts when crafting policy.

Guest
Guest

One of the factors that made the death penalty a possibly more necessary option in the past was that the harshest non-death sentence in Texas was Life with Parole. And given how the time toward parole was calculated, some people sentenced to Life would end up serving relatively short sentences.

In more recent years, Texas has both lengthened the amount of time a convict must serve of their sentence and added a Life without Parole sentencing option.

It is horrible that someone like Kenneth McDuff (to name probably the most notorious murderer released from prison to kill again) was allowed to go free and cause all sorts of pain and misery (possibly even more than we've so-far discovered. Some theorize he was responsible for the Austin Yogurt Shop murders) before being caught again and, subsequently, put to death.

However, it may or may not be necessary to keep the death penalty to solve such problems. Life without Parole and longer time served on other sentences with parole might be just as effective a solution.

As no innocent person having been executed, one of the roadblocks I've discovered when trying to prove someone's innocence after their execution is both that it's difficult to even get into court to challenge such a conviction without a living defendant and most, if not all, physical evidence is destroyed after an execution takes place (and, in many cases, long before).

There's a very suspicious case up in the Panhandle in which an elderly nun was raped and murdered in her convent room. At the time of her murder, the police were investigating a startling similar crime in which an elderly woman a few blocks away was raped and murdered. A local teenager was ultimately arrested for killing the nun (a local reporter has said that the police focused on the teenager after a psychic named 'Bubbles' identified him), convicted (based on an unsigned, unwitnessed, typewritten confession obtained by a police officer who was "known to get confessions when no one else could" and a pubic hair that was "consistent with" the teenager's using a kind of hair analysis that since been discredited) and ultimately executed. The rape and murder of the other elderly woman was officially unsolved, though police had publicly said they thought the two murders were committed by the same person.

In 2004, cold case detectives subjected evidence from that other rape and murder to DNA analysis and got a match to a Cuban refugee who was then in prison for another crime. An enterprising lawyer then decides that if the police thought the two murders committed four months apart back in 1981 were perpetrated by the same person, maybe they were right and had executed the wrong man. So, he petitioned the court and D.A. for the right to test the evidence in the nun killing case.

The then-current D.A. stated under oath that the evidence had been destroyed long ago as per the office's policy.

So, the question remains. Was the teenager guilty? He might have been, but the evidence that put him away is, in retrospect, not very conclusive and the similarity of the previous murder that was conclusively committed by someone else certainly gives one pause about whether the state got it right the first time.

But there's no way to know for sure. The evidence was long-ago destroyed so there's nothing to test. Officially, that teenager will remain guilty forever because the prosecutors destroyed anything that could be used to determine without a doubt whether the right man was executed for the crime. (Even if the Cuban publicly confesses, it's still potentially suspect since people do lie and, sometimes, people confess to things they didn't do).

Now, given the state of evidence retention throughout the 1980s and before (and even after), it's likely that the death penalty alone didn't result in that destruction of evidence. Once that teenager's appeals were exhausted, the D.A. likely would've destroyed that evidence even if the sentence had been life (As we all know by now, Dallas was rare in its commitment to keeping physical evidence).

But I do think it's disingenuous, given the impossibility of knowing for sure in most cases, to flat out say that the state has never executed an innocent man just because we largely throw away the evidence after someone has been executed and don't offer many avenues to even challenge a potentially wrongful conviction for an already dead defendant.

james
james

i agree partly. some mad dogs are just to mean to keep alive. and they do kill each other in the cages. and they kill people in the cages who shouldn't even  be there. and they let out mad dogs they shouldn't. and, for years, they've been lying to get a conviction of an innocent.  i'm sure that between 50 states and 200+ years, our government has murdered plenty of innocents in the name of justice. power corrupts and prosecutor or judge is a powerful position

Anon
Anon

If you don't believe that an innocent person has been put to death via our legal system, I'm not really sure where else to go with this comment.

scottindallas
scottindallas

 all good points.  But for me, there is nothing more powerful than the fact that it costs 5-7 times more to put a man to death than to lock him up for life.  How is such a broad and moderate path so taboo?  Usually these situations lards someone with the suet and schmaltz of cash. 

Guest
Guest

But he was only released because Texas didn't have a life without parole option (and were fairly generous with the amount of time an inmate had to serve before being eligible for parole) their and the Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty.

Had the current laws been in place in the 1970s when McDuff's sentence was commuted, he never would have left prison to kill all those additional people.

holman
holman

I'll tell that to your kids when you awaken in the middle of the night and have one of these cretins at the foot of your bed.

holman
holman

And what of the innocents who will die at the hands of the murderers you spare?

Got anything to say to them, you idiot?

scottindallas
scottindallas

 "But there's no way to know for sure. The evidence was long-ago destroyed so there's nothing to test." the defendant was destroyed as well.

Our legal system is expressly designed to possibly let a few guilty free, as our founders wanted to err on the side of convicting no innocent man.  Perhaps Holman should go back to 18th Century England, his attitude is consistent with that day.  I'm so sick of Muslims being painted as these anachronistic people.  All cultures have those that wish they could turn the calender back to a day they dimly understand, and thus have come to idealize.

Guest
Guest

Also, I'll say it before anyone else does.

tl;dr

holman
holman

I suppose you could start by pointing one out . . . conclusively, legally proven . . . 

Then I will list fifty who subsequently died at the hands of convicted murderers who were spared the death penalty.

Care to dance?  Or are you just going to sniff discomfort and marginalize?

cp
cp

That's because they are incarcerated for so long. The thing I noted in the story above is that Watkins's great-grandfather was convicted in October 1931 and executed less than a year later. 

scottindallas
scottindallas

 perhaps you'd like to see the death penalty for every single murder, but the fact is that only one extreme category of murder warrants the death penalty.  There are other murder, not to mention manslaughter charges which don't merit such designation.  In fact, many of these convicts are sentenced to terms which they fulfill.  Now, we tend to incarcerate people longer than Europe, yet we have greater recidivism.  It would seem that our death penalty is wholly ineffective as a deterrent, as incarceration for life is an equal deterrent while costing 1/5th to 1/7 the cost. 

You say cost is not a factor, yet, cost is precisely the justification given for many of our early releases.  When you ignore the principle reason for abbreviated sentences, it's no wonder arguments end for you earlier than they do for rational, mature people who realize that every decision of this sort is economic.  You've only affirmed my every point.  You think with your emotions and not your head.  You're the pathetic (means emotional) liberal and I'm the cynical, cold policy study. 

holman
holman

the policy is based upon the future body count, which you seem to ignore and cannot stop.  And cost is not a factor.  Saving future innocent lives is (the only factor).  Recidivism is zero when the murderer is dead.

And so, apparently, is your argument (ha!).

scottindallas
scottindallas

fear and paranoia, what a sound basis for policy.  Your policies cost 5-7 times more per inmate.  It's your policies that exacerbate the economically driven early release program.  I'm arguing for saner, wiser policies that are driven by balance of budget with criminal enforcement aims.  

scottindallas
scottindallas

I wouldn't be committing gross fallacies and calling others idiot.  There is an excluded middle, or a false dichotomy.  It is cheaper to incarcerate someone for life than to put them to death.  To the point of a 500-700% higher cost.  That means that for everyone you put to death, 4-6 others will be released.  You're the one advocating policies that results in extra costs, which is the leading factor in our early release programs.  So Idiot, it's your perspective that is sparing murderers and other violent criminals to be released early.  It's your program that is beggaring other more successful programs which prevent recidivism.  I should have expected an emotional response from someone who lets pathos so overwhelm his judgment and positions.  It's the emotionally driven programs YOU support that lead to the very profligacy that hinders our wiser, saner criminal enforcement.

Chris
Chris

We have no death penalty in austria, still we have much less murderes, much less people in prison, maybe you should start out with your "american way of life" selling guns to every idiot?

scottindallas
scottindallas

 It costs 5-7 times more money to put a man to death than to incarcerate for life.  That means if you are for the death penalty, you support letting more people go free, or bloating our justice budget, or some other social profligacy, that I suspect you abhor when given to prevention programs.

Guest
Guest

And we do also have a growing list of people murdered or otherwise victimized by criminals who were allowed to go free by prosecutors who decided it was more important to convict the wrong person (and who face absolutely no consequences for their actions, even when those actions include illegally withholding exculpatory evidence).

But I'm sure people like Caitlin Baker don't mind that their mothers were taken from them just because police and prosecutors decided to take the lazy way out in earlier cases and twist the evidence to fit who they wanted to be guilty rather than actually investigating the evidence that came to light and finding the real killer.

holman
holman

was he subsequently proven innocent?

And how do you reconcile all these innocent people?  The huge body count.  And what do you say to the survivors:

http://tinyurl.com/4t52oby 

Anon
Anon

it requires immense financial resources to take on the fight of wrongful convictions. and quite frankly, I'd rather those limited dollars be spent attempting to overturn wrongful convictions of people who are still alive and in prison. that list is quite long. but you can also use google to help you find a list of people sentenced to death whose sentences were later overturned. you are also rebutting an argument I did not make. I said nothing against sentencing people to life in prison for their misdeeds. that would prevent them from murdering again without subjecting people to the human error inherent in our legal system.

scottindallas
scottindallas

 That's stupid.  The incarcerated for life are incarcerated much longer.  The reason it costs more is the legal process.  It requires at least two special trials for a death penalty case to go forward, one to see if any said incident is worthy of the death penalty, then a special trial in the sentencing phase, should the defendant be found guilty.  There are special appeals, considering the inherent deadline death penalty cases inherently contain.  It's not the time, it's the legal process.  And, considering the number of death row acquittals, we dare not abridge the appeals process, which again is the only check on an irrevocable sentence.

Guest
Guest

I don't know a good way around that, though. It's through the drawn-out appeals process that we tend to discover the wrongly convicted ones. It took nearly 25 years to find out that former Williamson County D.A. illegally withheld exculpatory evidence in the Michael Morton case, and at least six years were taken up with the current D.A. John Bradley doing everything he possibly could to keep DNA evidence from being tested (the DNA that ultimately exonerated him and led to a multiple murderer who was roaming free).

That wasn't a death penalty case, but if we design a system that says that once a prosecutor or police officer is able to successfully hide evidence for a year, then the sentence is final and can't be challenged, we're going to end up with a whole lot of people we know to be innocent that we'll put to death anyway (and the Supreme Court has said that actual innocence alone cannot prevent a state from executing someone).

Hank Skinner has been fighting for years to get DNA tested. The Legislature even rewrote the post-conviction testing statute to allow Skinner to get the testing he's sought. The prosecutor reacted to this new law by immediately filing for an execution date and again fighting any request for DNA testing. (Skinner may well be guilty, but fighting the DNA testing is what's generating expense and delaying carrying out the sentence).

In none of the cases in which a death row inmate was found to be not guilty did that discovery come in the first year after conviction, and most didn't even come within the first year of asking to test the evidence that ultimately exonerated them.

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