DALLAS (AP) — 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.
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."
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, is a key supporter of legislation to expand DNA testing and provide compensation for wrongful imprisonment. He said more people are "taking another look" at the death penalty, but doubted that immediate changes were on the horizon.
"I don't foresee a time when major changes will occur, but the discussion has at least begun on how we make it more just and how we make it more certain that we actually have the right guy," Ellis said in an email.
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.
With a handful of other exonerees watching, Watkins told the courtroom that it was a "fair question" to ask whether Texas had executed an innocent person.
"I think anyone that does not — that sits in a DA's seat — have doubts, they shouldn't be DAs," he said.
Watkins told the AP later that he didn't want to lecture other prosecutors, but thought that Dallas County could be "a part of the debate."
He pointed to the exoneration of Michael Morton, who served 24 years in prison before new DNA testing showed he didn't kill his wife. Attorneys for Morton accuse Ken Anderson, who prosecuted the case in Williamson County, north of Austin, of keeping key facts from the defense at his trial. Morton was convicted in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison.
Anderson, now a judge, faces a special investigation ordered last week by the Texas Supreme Court's chief justice.
"I think the Williamson County case is a perfect example of how there may be innocent individuals languishing on death row waiting for their execution," Watkins said.
John Bradley, the current Williamson County district attorney, said that "extraordinary changes" had already been made in the quarter-century since Morton was convicted. He said Watkins and others should wait for the inquiry against Anderson to be completed.
"It's a little premature for finger-pointing," Bradley said. "My preference is to let the process work through and evaluate what's there."
Watkins said he had already started talking to other elected officials about the death penalty. "The conversation needs to be had about if we pursue (the death penalty) and when we pursue it, are we pursuing it against someone who actually committed the crime," he said.