By NOMAAN MERCHANT, Associated Press
In this photo made Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins talks about the death penalty in a courtroom in Dallas. Watkins, whose office has freed more than 20 wrongfully convicted inmates, questioned whether Texas has executed an innocent person and called for a statewide “conversation” about how capital punishment is administered. Watkins described himself as a moral opponent of the death penalty who has pursued it in several cases because it’s the law. He also talks for the first time about his great-grandfather, who was executed in 1932 after being convicted of murder and robbery. Watkins says that dark chapter in his family’s history made him more aware of what needs to be changed. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
The Texas prosecutor 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. An additional five people have been exonerated outside of DNA testing. Most of those exonerations occurred during Watkins’ tenure.
Texas has executed 55 inmates since 2009, including 13 last year, a 15-year low. Twelve former death row inmates have been freed since 1973.
“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, according to Watkins and his mother, Paula.
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. An additional four death penalty cases are pending, according to his office. A panel within his office reviews possible death penalty cases and votes on whether to pursue it.
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.
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