Dallas DA seeks death penalty review

Credit: LM Otero/Associated Press
Craig Watkins wants to ensure penalty is done fairly.
By: Nomaan Merchant
Austin American-Statesman
Thursday, February 23, 2012

DALLAS — The district attorney leading an aggressive push to free wrongly imprisoned inmates, in a county where more than two dozen wrongful convictions have been overturned, is calling for a review of the capital punishment system in the nation's busiest death penalty state.

Craig Watkins' tenure as Dallas County's top prosecutor has earned him a national reputation. 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 — by far the most of any Texas county and more than all but two states.

Watkins said he did not get a full explanation of what happened to his great-grandfather, Richard Johnson, until he became district attorney. Johnson was executed in the electric chair in 1932, condemned to death for killing a man after his third escape from prison, according to state criminal records and news accounts.

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.

Watkins did not offer specific proposals for changes or suggest halting executions, but he said he wanted state lawmakers to look at how the death penalty is handled in counties.