Texas prosecutors bring different insights to death penalty debate; Walker
County DA at ease with role in state 'death machine' —- Former Bexar
County DA lost faith in capital punishment system
Texas is the death penalty capital of America. In recent decades, the
state has executed 405 men and women.
For many, the death penalty is a vague abstraction that rarely grabs their
attention longer than the time it takes to scan a news brief.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of lethal
injection in a Kentucky case. As it did so, Justice John Paul Stevens
called for a national debate over the morality of the death penalty.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins thinks the spark for the
debate "is going to come from someone in a district attorney's seat."
For prosecutors, capital punishment is breathtakingly real. They are the
men and women who parse mountains of evidence, interview shattered
survivors, depose witnesses and decide what charges to file. They are the
ones who ask 12 people to sentence someone to death.
Some prosecutors, such as David Weeks in Walker County, arrive at their
position on the death penalty gradually. Mr. Weeks has come full circle,
from a pacifist upbringing to being a vocal proponent of capital
Others change their minds only after leaving office. Sam Millsap, former
district attorney in Bexar County, grew up as a "full-throated" supporter
of the death penalty. He is now an outspoken opponent.
Their conclusions differ, but they agree on one thing: Texans need to talk
about the death penalty.
Walker County DA David Weeks at ease with role in state 'death machine'
David Weeks has sent 8 men to death row.
His office sits a few blocks from the state's death chamber; his phone
rings nonstop on execution days. Hordes of journalists descend
periodically on the "death penalty capital."
Walker County DA David Weeks opposed the death penalty into college. When
an inmate showed no remorse after stomping two people to death, his mind
"It's here in our back yard," says Mr. Weeks.
He says he's comfortable being part of the state's "death machine" because
"it's the right thing to do."
Mr. Weeks, 57, has been Walker County district attorney for 17 years. He's
also been an assistant DA in other counties and was a prosecutor in the
He thinks the death penalty is a deterrent and, "The ultimate punishment
has to be there to make the rest of the system work. There are certain
people that because [of] their crimes and who they are, can never be
He points to the recent capital murder indictment of 2 inmates accused of
killing a guard while trying to escape. No one can argue, "Let's put 'em
in prison, where they can't hurt anybody," Mr. Weeks says.
Mr. Weeks was raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where his
family attended the Church of the Brethren, which has a strong pacifist
tradition. "My ancestors that lived on that land refused to serve in the
Civil War," he says.
Mr. Weeks wrestled with questions about the taking of life while attending
the University of Virginia. He opposed the Vietnam War, and with his
family's history of pacifism and his perfect church attendance, he could
easily have sought conscientious objector status. But he didn't because he
says, "I felt there were times that you had to fight."
After he wasn't drafted, Mr. Weeks continued to oppose the death penalty
in occasional intellectual discussions with fellow philosophy majors.
Mr. Weeks who attended the University of Houston law school envisioned
himself as a defense attorney. He liked the way television's Perry Mason
would "get out there and fight for people."
But in 1981, while working as an intern, an inmate who helped "beat and
stomp" 2 people to death for a few dollars and a pair of boots changed his
"Man, I don't need to spend the rest of my life in here," the inmate kept
"He had no remorse," Mr. Weeks marvels. "No remorse. It was all about
"It made me sick."
He became a prosecutor.
By 1986, he was employed by the state's special prison prosecution unit
and facing his first capital case.
Ramon Mata, already serving time for murder, confessed to stabbing a
guard. Blood evidence tied him to the victim. "This was just clear cut,"
Mr. Weeks says. "You know, what am I gonna do send him back to prison for
A clear choice
Mr. Weeks says the choice has to be clear. He estimates that he opts for
the death penalty in 10 percent of eligible cases.
But he disagrees with the Supreme Court decision that juveniles shouldn't
The court ruled that they are not fully culpable and standards of decency
"that mark the progress of a maturing society" have changed.
In 1997, he prosecuted Raymond Levi Cobb, who was 17 when he robbed and
killed a young mother and buried her 16-month-old child alive. "That crime
was about as ugly a thing as I'd ever seen a human being do," Mr. Weeks
"My jury knew Cobb was 17 when he committed the crime," he says. "They
knew what they were dealing with."
He was equally disappointed by the court's blanket ban on execution of the
He prefers a case-by-case determination.
"There are many mentally retarded people that live good and productive
lives and don't go out and kill and maim and hurt anybody. … It's
offensive to them to lump 'em in with these criminals."
He assisted in one of the trials of John Penry, one of Texas' most
high-profile retardation homicide cases.
Mr. Penry was convicted of rape and murder in Livingston in 1979, while on
parole for another rape. A few years later, the Supreme Court ruled that
the jury had not been able to properly consider Mr. Penry's mental
capacity. The case was tried three times. Each time, the lower court's
death sentence was reversed.
In February, both sides agreed to commute the death sentence to three life
sentences. As part of the agreement, Mr. Penry stipulated that he was not,
in fact, mentally retarded. "Johnny Paul Penry deserved to die, should be
dead. He's a dangerous man, and he has played the system."
Only 1 inmate Mr. Weeks prosecuted has been executed. Mr. Mata who used
to send Mr. Weeks Christmas cards died in prison. The other cases also
were reversed and retried, resulting in life sentences.
But when Billy George Hughes was executed, Mr. Weeks was there. "I felt
that if I'm going to ask people to put someone to death that I should be
willing to go there," he says.
Mr. Hughes was condemned for shooting a state trooper in 1976. Another
officer witnessed the slaying.
Before the deadly chemicals were injected eight years ago, "Mr. Hughes was
kind enough to make me feel very good about the decision I made," Mr.
"He started talking about …'I didn't do anything. You're executing an
innocent man.'… He never apologized for killing [the victim], he never
showed any remorse, and he never took any responsibility…. I was furious
this man is going to meet his maker with a lie on his lips."
Even the possibility that an innocent person may be executed doesn't shake
him. "That's always a risk in the system," he says. "It's a human system,
it's going to be fallible.
"Mistakes happen," he says. "People die by friendly fire… we have to
work to make sure that the system works perfectly.'
He also is not swayed by seemingly sympathetic inmates such as Karla Faye
Tucker, the soft-spoken, photogenic pickax murderess who seemed to have
found religion and changed her life before being put to death in 1998.
"As a Christian, I'm happy for her," Mr. Weeks says. "But sometimes you
have to pay for your deeds."
Mr. Weeks, now a Methodist, can quote the Bible with ease. He's familiar
with the commandment not to kill and with Jesus' demand to turn the other
But, he says, "Jesus said, 'render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.'
And he forgave the thief on the cross but he didn't remove him from the
He believes in forgiveness, and redemption. He quietly helps some inmates,
including murderers, upon release.
But his bottom line is this: "There are some crimes that are so far beyond
the pale of human understanding that the death penalty is the only
"I never lose sight of their humanity," he adds, but "I never forget what
Former Bexar County DA Sam Millsap lost faith in capital punishment system
Sam Millsap is embarrassed to admit he doesn't remember how many people
his office sent to death row when he was district attorney here in the
Once he was in civil practice, Sam Millsap, with client Dan Morales
(left), became skeptical about capital punishment, especially after
numerous DNA exonerations.
"Somebody who has been responsible for making those decisions, for
directing those prosecutions, ought to be damned certain how many
executions he's responsible for," he says, wincing.
He estimates it was 8, maybe 9.
Back then, he just didn't think much about the death penalty, Mr. Millsap
says. "I was 35 years old. I knew everything. I was bulletproof."
Now 60, he thinks about the death penalty a lot about wrongful
convictions, flawed eyewitness testimony, DNA analysis.
"I am concerned that the system is absolutely incompetent to deal with
these issues," he says.
If anyone had told Mr. Millsap he'd lobby against the death penalty 25
years ago, he would have laughed.Growing up in San Antonio, his interest
in law was piqued by the Perry Mason television show where he was amazed
that the prosecutor never won.
But as a student at the University of Texas, Mr. Millsap was "in love with
the idea of being a top drawer corporate lawyer," he says.
In 1973, he joined a prestigious civil firm in Houston. But he returned to
San Antonio and ran for district attorney in Bexar County in 1982.
"Breathing fire" during the campaign, if asked about the death penalty, he
responded that he would "prosecute it vigorously."
"It's sort of like income taxes … it's part of what we live with, it's a
During his four years in office, he guesses his prosecutors pursued the
death penalty in 30 to 40 percent of eligible cases.
Mr. Millsap never witnessed an execution.
But back in civil practice in the late 1990s, he "started getting twitchy"
about capital punishment. The "waterfall of DNA exonerations" in
noncapital cases bothered him. So did a study about problems in the
administration of the death penalty.
And the execution of Gary Graham from Harris County, who insisted the lone
eyewitness in his case was mistaken, disturbed him.
"That was the first death penalty case that I think I ever really, really
looked at and was bothered by on the innocence issue," Mr. Millsap says.
Doubts about system
After Mr. Graham was executed in 2000, Mr. Millsap publicly called for a
moratorium. "I am no longer satisfied that our legal system guarantees the
protection of the innocent in capital murder cases," he wrote.
But, he says, he remained "absolutely certain that every person I had
prosecuted for the death penalty was guilty and deserved to die."
His statement made a small stir that faded quickly. But his wife's
reaction made him mad.
"You're an opponent of the death penalty but don't have the courage to
admit it," she said.
"The position that you've taken is that there should not be any more
executions until we have a system that guarantees the protection of the
innocent. [But] the system will never guarantee the protection of the
Mr. Millsap eventually realized he agreed with her.
Several years later, the Houston Chronicle called him about Ruben Cantu, a
17-year-old whom Mr. Millsap's office prosecuted for a robbery and murder
on the basis of a lone eyewitness. He was executed in 1993, but the
witness later recanted his statement.
Mr. Millsap was initially disbelieving that he could have sent an innocent
man to death. But after re-examining the case, his opinion changed. For a
while he thought Mr. Cantu was innocent, which meant "the most ultimate
An academic exercise became deeply personal. So personal that he broke
prosecutorial ranks and called for abolition of the death penalty.
Today, he doesn't think Mr. Cantu was innocent, but he believes the case
should not have been prosecuted as a capital crime because it was based
solely on one eyewitness.
The case haunts him.
"It's not about Cantu; it's about what we owe ourselves," he says. "In
every criminal case, there but for the grace of God, go you."
He tells his story to law schools, legislators and journalists. On the
anti-death penalty circuit, he is "treated like a rock star."
Mr. Millsap is not particularly comfortable with the movement, which often
lionizes death row inmates. "There aren't any innocent lambs," there, he
His opposition to capital punishment is rooted in practicality.
"Retribution is an acceptable goal," he says, "so it's really hard for me
to identify with, you know, what I refer to is the 'turn-the-other-cheek'
"Because the sanction is so final, so absolutely final, what we have to
have is a system that guarantees the protection of the innocent."
The only way to do that, he says, is to ban executions.
"As long as human beings are making the decisions and they are at every
point in the process, the potential for error is there," he says.
Mr. Millsap thinks the chances of outright abolition are small. But
practicality may demand a de facto abolition.
"The moralists have been carrying this debate for decades," he says, "and
they haven't moved the needle at all. … What's driving the movement
right now is the innocence issue."
He believes Texans can be persuaded to abolish the death penalty, because
it costs more to prosecute a capital case through execution than it does
to imprison someone for life.
The system "will collapse of its own weight," he predicts.
Amy Robinson's grandmother slams killer's mental retardation claim
A decade after Amy Robinson was abducted, shot with pellets and left for
dead, the fate of 1 of her 2 killers remains unsettled.
Michael Wayne Hall has appealed his death sentence, offering evidence that
he is mentally retarded.
That has angered Ms. Robinson's family, especially her grandmother,
Carolyn Barker of Grand Prairie. It is her granddaughter, Mrs. Barker
said, whose own mental defect made her an easy target for Mr. Hall and his
co-defendant Robert Neville Jr.
Prosecutors said the pair, who trial testimony showed had been friends
with the 19-year-old Arlington woman, tortured and then killed her. They
later returned to the spot where they had left her and fired numerous
shots into her body.
Mr. Neville was executed 2 years ago.
Mr. Hall was tried separately and also sentenced to death. But last year,
the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard evidence that Mr. Hall is
mentally retarded and should not be executed. It is not clear when the New
Orleans-based court would issue its decision.
Mrs. Barker, who raised Ms. Robinson, says Mr. Hall was equally as violent
as Mr. Neville in the fatal attack and should pay with his life.
"I'm just seething," Mrs. Barker said of the possibility that Mr. Hall's
death sentence might be chopped to life in prison. "A life sentence for
this man, it's very upsetting. I don't know how to say it without sounding
cruel, but Hall was the one who shot the bow and arrow at her, shot her
"It's almost unbelievable what they did to this child," she said. "It's
been too good to let him live this long."
Mr. Hall and Mr. Neville worked with Ms. Robinson at an Arlington grocery
store and knew her routine, according to court records. On Feb. 15, 1998,
the two picked Ms. Robinson up as she bicycled to work.
Following a 17-day search, Ms. Robinson's body was found in a field near
the Trinity River bottoms, just north of Arlington.
"We knew our lives would never be the same," Mrs. Barker said. "She's
never forgotten. I think of her every day."
Mrs. Barker, 67, said Mr. Hall seemed to enjoy the killing and the
notoriety it brought them.
The 2 men fled after Ms. Robinson's slaying and were caught at a customs
checkpoint near Eagle Pass. During a jailhouse interview, they told
reporters that they laughed as they watched Ms. Robinson die.
"They wanted to be on TV," Mrs. Barker said. "They wanted to be thrill
killers. They bragged about it."
Assistant Tarrant County District Attorney Alan Levy prosecuted both men.
He said Mr. Hall knows right from wrong and does not deserve a reduced
"There is no question he knew what he was doing," Mr. Levy said. "You can
look at the evidence and his own statement and conclude that he was aware,
knew what he was doing."
Mr. Hall's attorney, David Sheldon of Washington, D.C., disagrees, saying
his client has the mental capacity of a child.
Mr. Hall, he said, has significant limitations. IQ tests that suggest Mr.
Hall's intellectual functions and language skills are limited and his
comprehension slow, Mr. Sheldon said.
"There's never been an on-the-record hearing with respect to the issue of
mental retardation," said Mr. Sheldon. "The death of Amy Robinson was very
much a tragedy. It is unconstitutional to execute a mentally retarded
Mrs. Barker, however, sees him differently. She believes Mr. Hall changes
his behavior when it benefits him.
"He clutched a Bible during trial," she said. "He played like he was
mentally retarded, and he's still playing."
She wants the trial jury's decision upheld.
"He deserved the death penalty," Mrs. Barker said. What does it say if
that gets overturned? I put a lot of faith in the jury system. When you're
sitting there and that jury is out, you worry. You worry that [the
defendants] will get out and harm someone else. It would be devastating to
let this guy hurt someone else.
"And, he would."
(source for all: Dallas Morning News)