death penalty news—-TEXAS

Sept. 22


Is Watkins' goal justice or publicity?

How could a reasonable person find fault with Craig Watkins' latest
publicity venture, grandly reopening his predecessors' 40 not-yet-resolved
death penalty cases?

Taken at his word, Dallas County's district attorney only wants to be
absolutely certain that those awaiting lethal injection actually deserve
it, as 40 juries said they did. "It's not saying I'm putting a moratorium
on the death penalty," Mr. Watkins said, even as he did.

Not all death cases, mind you. Just the ones worked by those sketchy
fellows who had the DA's office before we all became "smart on crime" and
more interested in justice than convictions.

One of my colleagues even wondered what the good ol' boys had to fear.
Were they worried that he might turn up those unjust convictions they
stashed among the righteous ones?

Really, what's the harm?

The harm is the breathtaking arrogance of a district attorney who wants to
set himself up as the lone member of the Texas Court of Higher Than Any
Appeals Court in the Land, an extra-judicial remedy to a problem that he
might suspect but didn't bother to find evidence to support.

If Mr. Watkins' goal were more than another newspaper headline if it
really was about justice why go public before he knew of a single
questionable death penalty case?

Yes, the count of DNA exonerations in Dallas County is nearing 20. To say
this implies inordinately poor justice ignores the fact that Dallas
County, unlike most others, preserved DNA evidence going back decades. It
also stands to reason that one might cast a skeptical eye at every other
guilty verdict. Fair enough.

Yet this assumes that a rape is a robbery is an aggravated assault is a
capital murder. It asks us to forget that prosecutors, even the ones Mr.
Watkins might not like, are loath to ask a jury to send anyone to death
row without a slam-dunk case. What emerges as a death penalty trial
survives a rigorous screening process, unlike noncapital cases.

This isn't unique to Dallas County, but it's why county prosecutors seek
death in barely 1 percent of the slaying indictments.

We also must ignore the mandatory appeals process that gives the
condemned, on average, a decade or more even in "bloodthirsty Texas" to
find some technical reason to stay among the living. At every step,
reasonable people pore over every stitch of evidence, looking for
reversible error.

That might be why no one has found that elusive

Before Mr. Watkins committed to freeze all death sentences pending his
signoff, he could have used his own special conviction integrity unit to
plod through each case file, oldest to newest, page by page. "Bring me the
ones that don't look right," he could have said. "I will seek justice."

If 2 or 6 or 10 showed error or prosecutorial misconduct, Mr. Watkins
could have marched into a Dallas County court and demanded of a judge:
"These cases look bad. I have evidence."

And that would be about the right time to go public, when he actually
found the possibility of an innocent defendant.

So what's the difference? Only this: Those 40 cases involve dozens of
murder victims and dozens upon dozens of mothers, fathers, children,
grandparents, aunts, uncles and lifelong friends. Which ones should have
to wonder about justice for their loved one's killer?

Should Lori Hawkins-Acosta? Irving police Officer Aubrey Hawkins was shot
to death 7 years ago for responding to a robbery in progress at a sporting
goods store by seven escaped Texas prison inmates. Pre-Craig Watkins
prosecutors secured death sentences for the six survivors. Five still draw
breath on death row.

That's 5 cases Mr. Watkins didn't have to throw into doubt among many,
many others and one widow who shouldn't have to worry whether the lawyer
who should represent her interests is busier chasing a microphone.

(source: Editorial–Mike Hashimoto is an assistant editorial page editor
for The Dallas Morning News. This column reflects his personal opinion)