Dallas County DA makes clear he's not 'soft on crime'
Craig Watkins remains deeply conflicted about the death penalty.
But as Dallas County's district attorney, he took an extraordinary step
this week to make clear that he's not, as some of his critics have
suggested, "soft on crime," a reputation no doubt enhanced by his devout
push to overturn wrongful convictions.
Mr. Watkins took the gloves off Wednesday, personally presenting closing
arguments in the death-penalty case of Robert Sparks, convicted of fatally
stabbing his wife and 2 young stepsons before raping 2 adolescent
"He's a poster child for the death penalty," Mr. Watkins pointed out.
Now, if you're a poster child in Texas, a state that's presided over 18 of
the nation's 37 executions carried out this year, that's saying an awful
lot, none of which is flattering.
"I felt a responsibility to the victims and to the people of Dallas County
to let them know we are going to punish people who commit violent, heinous
crimes and hold them accountable," Mr. Watkins told me after the jury
sentenced Mr. Sparks to death. "We're here to seek justice."
It was a bold, yet necessary, message for Mr. Watkins, who's already
declared he'll seek re-election in 2 years.
"I think people were hungry to see that, to see that side of me," he said.
Mr. Watkins came into office facing questions about his lack of
prosecutorial experience and his warm-and-fuzzy campaign rhetoric about
being "smart on crime."
"What I respected about him when he ran for public office is that he had a
very clear sense of how he thought he should do the job," Dallas Police
Chief David Kunkle said.
Some critics ridiculed Mr. Watkins' "smart on crime" slogan as "hug a
thug," Chief Kunkle said, but the district attorney has worked diligently
with police to get habitual or "impact" offenders off the streets, a move
the chief said has helped reduce crime.
So far, the chief said, "I'm impressed."
Despite such accolades, Mr. Watkins is best known for setting free
wrongfully convicted prisoners in a county that leads the nation in DNA
Fair or not, the image tattooed in people's minds is one of Mr. Watkins
escorting convicts out of jail rather than ushering them in.
Mr. Watkins intends to strike a better balance in the months ahead. "I
think a lot of people were impressed with my performance" in the
courtroom, Mr. Watkins said. "You'll see it more often in 2009."
Since he took over, he said, his office has successfully sought the death
penalty in 4 cases, including the one against Mr. Sparks.
Mr. Watkins initially had misgivings about getting personally involved in
the case and seeking the death penalty.
His lead prosecutor, Andy Beach, convinced him that it was the right thing
to do. "And after I sat down and talked to the 2 little girls, that gave
me the courage," Mr. Watkins said.
He still agonized over the decision with his wife and 3 kids, as well as
his pastor. He's still not entirely sold on the death penalty. "At this
point, I'm in a gray area," he said.
This is what he told the jury: "This is very difficult for me to get up
here and ask you to take a human life, because I value it," he said.
Then he pointed out that Mr. Sparks "has been working for this day for 34
years. Reward him and give him what he deserves: the death sentence."
After Mr. Watkins prevailed, he gathered his prosecutors and took those 2
little girls out for lunch, where he gave them his cellphone number in
case they ever need help.
"Both of them want to be lawyers. I think they'd be great prosecutors," he
That's the side of Mr. Watkins that folks have come to know. Now they're
seeing the other side, the one with which he's still coming to grips.
"I'm just here to tell you that I'm not gung-ho for the death penalty, but
this was one of those situations where I felt I was backed into a corner
by this defendant," Mr. Watkins said.
"I've got 3 babies, and there's no question in my mind what I'd want if
somebody did that to one of my babies."
(source: Dallas Morning News)
It is pathetic that Dallas DA Craig Watkins continues to portray himself
as conflicted over the death penalty. Declaring that he wanted "to seek
justice" and that "people were hungry to see that side of me," he
personally prosecuted Robert Sparks, who was sentenced to death for the
vile crime of 3 murders.
The DA could have sought life without parole for Mr. Sparks; instead, he
pandered to the lowest common denominator of societal anger, and showed
that he is nothing more than just another DA who can claim to be "tough on
It is clear Mr. Watkins is not conflicted about the death penalty. He may
try to soothe his conscience in church on Sundays before his Maker, but
supporting it the other 6 days of the week clearly shows his true nature.
The death penalty remains an inherently flawed, racist and barbaric
institution, and is on the decline nationally and globally.
Mr. Watkins says he is in a "gray area" about the death penalty; he's not.
He supports the death penalty, not justice. And for that we are all the
Rick Halperin, President, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
(source: Letter to the Editor, Dallas Morning News)