TEXAS (USA): DISTRICT ATTORNEY CALLS FOR A REVIEW OF THE CAPITAL PUNISHMENT SYSTEM
February 23, 2012: In Texas, Dallas County's District Attorney, Craig Watkins, 44, black, is calling for a review of the capital punishment system. Now, as Watkins publicly acknowledges that his great-grandfather was executed in Texas almost 80 years ago, he called on state lawmakers to review death penalty procedures to ensure the punishment is fairly administered.
"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. 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.
Dallas County has exonerated 22 people through DNA evidence since 2001 â 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 during Watkins' tenure. "I think the reforms we've made in our criminal justice system are better than any other state in this country," Watkins said. "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 hearing about the execution of his great-grandfather, Richard Johnson.
According to state criminal records and news accounts, 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. 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.
Watkins says he opposes the death penalty on moral grounds but doesn't want those beliefs "pushed upon someone else."
He has sought the death penalty at trial in nine cases, with eight death sentences received.
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.
The latest wrongfully convicted man to be exonerated in Dallas County, Richard Miles, was formally declared innocent 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. Craig Watkins was elected District Attorney of Dallas County in November 2006. Under Watkinsâ leadership, the Dallas County D.A.âs office has achieved a 99.4% conviction rate, and has focused on protecting the most vulnerable by locking up sex offenders and child predators. His Conviction Integrity Unit has reviewed more than 300 cases and helped free 25 wrongly convicted inmates. Watkins has received numerous awards for his Conviction Integrity Unit. (Source: Associated Press, 23/02/2012)