Monday, March 12, 2012

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins and the Death Penalty

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins is a perplexing public figure to follow.  First elected in November 2006, he quickly gained widespread accolades for creating the Conviction Integrity Unit within the District Attorney’s Office, which reviews and re-investigates post-conviction claims of innocence using forensic testing.  

Despite this tremendous success, he has been entirely unable to steer clear of controversy.  Very few have attacked him over his conviction integrity work. Rather, Watkins, a Democrat, has been accused of firing prosecutors for partisan reasons (reminiscent of Bush’ U.S. Attorney firing controversy), paying family members out of campaign funds, and struggling with decisions to investigate and prosecute alleged criminal activity by Dallas County constables.

Even in light of his tumultuous history in office, I was surprised by the most recent story that came out in the news: Watkins’ great-grandfather was executed by the state of Texas in 1932.  In and of itself, this is little more than a fascinating item to note in Watkins’ biography.  However, the impact of his revelation is worth consideration: Watkins is again reconsidering his views on the death penalty [link’s behind a paywall, sorry!].

District Attorney Watkins entered office with “a lifelong opposition” to the death penalty, according to the Dallas Morning News.  Soon after taking office, he indicated his willingness to seek the death penalty in capital cases, and by 2010, he stated that he ceased having moral concerns about capital punishment.  Following the disclosure about his great-grandfather, Watkins told the Associated Press in an interview that the system of capital punishment in Texas needs to be reviewed.

At first blush, it’s refreshing to have one of Texas’ district attorneys—who are well known for their propensity to push for severe punishment—willing to take a thoughtful approach to the issue of the death penalty.  The evidence in recent years about the great likelihood of Texas executing an innocent person as well as the considerable research showing the racially disparate impact of the death penalty is troubling, if not for constitutional reasons, certainly for moral ones.  My initial instinct is thus to praise Watkins for grappling with the same issues that I do about the death penalty and doing so in the public eye.

On the other hand, Watkins’ ambivalence about the death penalty implicates one of the major concerns held by those who oppose (or question) the death penalty: that it will be imposed in an arbitrary and capricious manner.  There are quite insidious concerns about arbitrariness, such as greater incidences of death sentences based on race or sex.  It’s also troubling that a district attorney might pursue the death penalty in one case because he or she strongly supports it and the next year, not pursue the death penalty in an identical case because of his newfound opposition. 

This isn’t at all to say that I think Watkins should maintain his support for the death penalty rather than vacillate from support to opposition.  The road to reform is not often a straight one.  Instead, I hope, one day, he can look to his own indecisiveness about the death penalty and the impact it has had on capital cases in Dallas County and cite it as one of many reasons why he anchors himself in the camp opposed to the death penalty.

1 comment:

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