Editorial: Craig Watkins is the 2008 Texan of the Year
On the surface, the courtroom scene typified old-time Texas justice.
The accused killed his family, so he needs killing, the prosecution
argued. Among onlookers who filled the wooden benches for closing
arguments, there was little doubt how this story would end: with an
execution. One of the bailiffs offered his own not-so-subtle take, donning
a black tie emblazoned with a white syringe.
But at the prosecutors' table, Dallas County District Attorney Craig
Watkins sat, eyes closed, rubbing his temples, gathering himself. Finally,
he stood and, for the first time, delivered the words he had dreaded
"Give him what he deserves: the death sentence," Mr. Watkins told jurors.
Here in the state that sanctions killing more often than any other, Craig
Watkins is not just another cog in the machinery of death. The first-term
Dallas County district attorney has quickly emerged as a transformational
figure who has made a name not by securing convictions, but by clearing
the way for them to be overturned.
Under his watch, the prison door has swung open again and again, as the
wrongly convicted have walked out as free men. He is a prosecutor who has
sought the death penalty because it is his professional responsibility but
who is personally conflicted.
Mr. Watkins has trained a spotlight on the flaws in the system, and 2
years after becoming the state's first black district attorney, he is
suddenly the new face of Texas jurisprudence.
For his efforts to reform an imperfect criminal justice system and for his
willingness to stake out politically precarious territory somewhere
between "hug a thug" and "convict at all costs," Mr. Watkins is the 2008
Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year.<>P> Admittedly, this small-time
defense lawyer-turned big-deal DA is a lucky guy. He swept into office on
a wave of Republican malaise, arrived just as improved DNA technology was
employed to overturn convictions, and found himself in one of the few
places in the country where evidence was preserved for years after cases
"Life is all about timing," Mr. Watkins says. "I just happen to be a
person with a progressive point of view who is garnering the rewards for
this good timing."
Of course, the new DA in town has detractors, critics who want the
county's top prosecutor to focus on convictions and leave it to defense
attorneys to balance the scales of justice.
Many more observers have hailed his efforts to forge a new approach. He
has been written about nationally with splashy headlines like "The
And while his timing was fortuitous, the 41-year-old Democrat is not
simply a passive beneficiary or a one-note character. He is actively
pursuing a range of reforms that would protect the wrongly accused and
appropriately punish the guilty. Not only does he want to clear the
innocent, but he also hopes to extend the statute of limitations in DNA
cases to ensure that the right person does the time.
He has reinvented his office by creating a conviction integrity unit, an
operation that has freed prisoners who were wrongly locked up for murder,
robbery and rape. Not content to just notch wins in the courtroom, Mr.
Watkins deserves credit for vigilantly pursuing justice a distinction
with an important difference.
Dallas County leads the country in DNA exonerations (19 and counting), and
Mr. Watkins has seized upon the attendant acclaim, taking his fight for
social justice to statewide and national stages. In his sudden fame, he
sees an opportunity to change the way district attorneys do business.
Full of complexities
Mr. Watkins' philosophy like the courtroom scene in the death penalty
case is more nuanced than first impressions would suggest.
That December day, when Mr. Watkins helped prosecute his first case as
district attorney, encapsulated many of the complexities of his tenure.
The former defense lawyer didn't ease into the prosecutor's seat; he
started big, with a high-profile trial. Ever sensitive to any suggestion
that he's soft on crime, Mr. Watkins attached himself to a gruesome
capital murder case, despite his misgivings about allowing a flawed system
to mete out an irreversible punishment.
As the trial neared its end, word spread that Mr. Watkins would make the
prosecution's final plea for death. Suddenly, the sparsely populated
courtroom was standing room only.
Assistant District Attorney Andy Beach led off, describing the murders in
grisly, bloody detail and asking the jury to ensure that defendant Robert
Sparks would be strapped to a gurney in Huntsville, lethal drugs injected
into his veins.
Finally, Mr. Watkins commanded the courtroom.
"Power is scary sometimes," he said. "I promised the citizens of Dallas
County that I would only use it when it's absolutely necessary."
Mr. Watkins told jurors how much he valued human life and then, almost
reluctantly, he asked them to choose death. They did.
The moment, like so much of Mr. Watkins' professional life these days, was
well-documented. He's become a legal celeb, feted in the national media
and trailed by a British film crew producing a documentary about his
conviction integrity unit.
After wrapping his closing arguments, Mr. Watkins stole a moment away from
the cameras in his office on the 11th floor of the criminal courthouse.
"You don't know how difficult that was," he says, staring out the window.
"My religion tells me that goes against everything I've been taught."
Mr. Watkins' qualms, though, aren't tied only to his personal faith but
also to his analysis of the system.
The argument against the death penalty "is not a moralistic one," says Mr.
Watkins, who attends Friendship-West Baptist Church. "It's: Are we making
mistakes? And we've made mistakes. We don't have a fail-safe system."
He is working to identify weaknesses in judicial and police procedures
both at the local and state levels. In June, Mr. Watkins was named to the
newly created Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit, which was charged
with examining wrongful convictions.
In Dallas County, he launched an effort this year to re-examine nearly 40
death penalty convictions. The deluge of DNA exonerations has rightly
shaken Mr. Watkins' confidence in Texas' approach to criminal justice and
has convinced him that the state is capable of a deadly error.
As a broad concept, Mr. Watkins' goal of identifying the wrongfully
convicted is nearly unassailable. His detractors often begin by saying,
"I'm all for making sure that innocent people are not imprisoned, but …"
The question has been raised whether such efforts should fall under the
district attorney's purview.
"Pardons and parole boards should be concerned with getting people out of
prison. Defense attorneys should, too," says John McAdams, an associate
professor of political science at Marquette University. "Frankly, that's
simply the wrong orientation for the DA. … Prosecutors really ought to
be about putting people they think are guilty in prison."
Other district attorneys have quietly offered similar thoughts, but few
have gone public with their criticism of Mr. Watkins.
Dallas County Commissioner Ken Mayfield has called the district attorney's
conviction integrity unit an unnecessary drain on taxpayer dollars. The
county pays more than $400,000 annually to fund the salaries of the
conviction integrity team. The Republican commissioner asserts that
defense lawyers, along with the Innocence Project of Texas, could continue
these efforts without benefit of public dollars.
Mr. Watkins is "costing the taxpayers $480,000 per year that's needless,"
Mr. Mayfield says.
That is money well spent, however, as long as Mr. Watkins strikes the
delicate balance between pursuing convictions and getting them overturned.
So far, he has. His conviction rates are comparable to his tough-on-crime
Bristles at criticism
More troubling is Mr. Watkins' reflexively cynical response to anything
less than high praise. He is quick to blame the media, the Republicans,
the racists or anyone else who is handy for ginning up unfair criticism.
He struggles to understand why someone would point out his missteps and
says he is always held to a higher standard than other elected officials.
Still, lapses in judgment have been evident during Mr. Watkins' short time
in the limelight. For example, his office sought out corporate donors to
provide door prizes for a party. The solicitation letters spelled out a
quid pro quo: Donate a gift, get face time with the DA.
Mr. Watkins says he did nothing wrong and resents any such suggestion.
In some ways, the rookie still needs to grow into this job.
The pile of positive press Mr. Watkins has received dwarfs the smattering
of critical reports. Yet even vaguely unfavorable coverage figurative pin
pricks seem to hit him like a sucker punch to the gut.
He has been something of a media darling, attracting attention from the
likes of 60 Minutes and The Wall Street Journal. After interviewing the
Dallas County district attorney, Reason magazine posed the question, "Is
this America's best prosecutor?"
Mr. Watkins must guard against believing his own hype.
"People like me usually don't get their due until after they're gone," he
'Destined for greatness'
Tanya Watkins says she and her husband both struggle at times with the
scrutiny that accompanies this new life in the public eye.
"It's very difficult, because people say things as if they know who he
is," Mrs. Watkins says. "They don't know his heart."
Mr. Watkins' wife is both his best advocate and his most trusted adviser,
a sounding board who mulls over issues and ideas with him. Whether
starting their own businesses or raising three young children, the couple
tackles challenges as a team.
"I told him when we first met that he was destined for greatness," says
Mrs. Watkins. "Craig always had a game plan."
She calls herself the general of his one-woman army. When he asked jurors
to execute the man, she sat in the front row, silently offering her
"That was very emotional for him, emotional for me watching," Mrs. Watkins
says. "He's still doing some soul searching about it."
When the district attorney walked in the door of their DeSoto home after
that wrenching day, he was greeted by 3-year-old daughter Taryn and her
trademark "daddy dance."
"She does that every day. No matter how bad it's been, that makes his
day," Mrs. Watkins says.
Although Mr. Watkins' family and old friends can't point to a particular
accomplishment that might have portended this path, no one seems surprised
by his relatively sudden ascension.
"It was all part of the plan," his wife says. "It's only a surprise to
people who don't know him and didn't see him coming."
In college, "he was a little more focused than some of us," says Michael
Green, a Dallas doctor and Mr. Watkins' fraternity brother at Prairie View
A&M University. "We were in college, and he was already getting ready for
law school. He was just someone you respected."
Mr. Watkins, who graduated from Dallas' Carter High School, says that
political office long has been his objective and that he knew early on
that education was empowerment.
After his graduation from Texas Wesleyan School of Law, he and his wife
opened a law practice and title company. In 2002, he took his first shot
at the district attorney's office, losing to incumbent Bill Hill. 4 years
later, he upended veteran prosecutor Toby Shook, Mr. Hill's handpicked
Those who came before him
Both Republicans take umbrage at the perception that Mr. Watkins is solely
responsible for the exonerations in Dallas County. Mr. Shook points out
that the majority of freed prisoners were cleared during Mr. Hill's
tenure. And, he notes, previous administrations actually instructed the
medical examiner's office to preserve the evidence that now is used for
Exonerations "would have continued under anyone who was elected," Mr.
Shook says. "I give [Mr. Watkins] credit for giving it emphasis, but we
were doing this."
Mr. Watkins disagrees. Too often in the past, he says, defendants were
exonerated despite the district attorney's efforts not because of them.
"They stood in the way," Mr. Watkins says of his predecessors. "We
actively pursue it." Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in
New York, says that Mr. Watkins' conviction integrity unit has been
admired and emulated across the country.
"Sometimes district attorneys are reluctant to admit that a mistake was
made," Mr. Scheck says. "What he proved is if the district attorney's
office is not afraid to admit that a mistake was made and correct it, then
juries will reward them for it. By doing justice, you establish
While Mr. Watkins and his allies acknowledge that much remains to be done,
the district attorney in many ways has been the octane fueling recent
progress. During his first year in office, he laid the groundwork for many
of these efforts.
Now, as he approaches the halfway mark in his four-year term, Mr. Watkins
has found his footing and is making important strides.
He campaigned on a promise to be "smart on crime," a simple slogan that is
more complicated in the follow through. Over time, he has refined that
vision, detailing a list of initiatives aimed at improving efficiency and
restoring credibility. From opening the district attorney's case files to
setting guidelines for eyewitness testimony, Mr. Watkins' ideas have begun
to affect the way people view "Texas justice."
He is a compelling change agent. And political allies and rivals alike
can't help musing about his next move. Mr. Watkins is pondering that as
well while still emphasizing that he has work to do as district attorney.
"Any person in politics would be lying to you if they told you they don't
have aspirations beyond where they are," he says. "Will I be afforded the
opportunity to pursue loftier goals? I don't know. It's just too early."
Mr. Watkins still is a work in progress. But he has elevated the debate
about the quality of justice and has altered our view of the job that
district attorneys everywhere should do.
For these game-changing efforts, Craig Watkins is the 2008 Dallas Morning
News Texan of the Year.
(source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)
Execution date set Jan. 27 for killer in 1998 murder—-Defense will
appeal again, also ask for clemenc
After years of legal appeals and a stay of execution, convicted killer
Larry Swearingen is set to be put to death Jan. 27 for the sexual assault
and strangulation of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter in December 1998.
The execution date was set this week after Swearingen's 3rd appeal was
denied by the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals.
The appeals court last week rejected Swearingen's claims that prosecutors
withheld evidence and presented false testimony during the trial. It also
dismissed evidence from Dr. Joye Carter, then the medical examiner of
Harris County, who in 2007 changed her opinion on Trotter's date of death,
placing Swearingen in jail when Trotter was killed.
In previous appeals, Swearingen's attorney James Rytting has presented
insect and pathology evidence, which he contends proves his client is
Trotter disappeared from Montgomery College on Dec. 8, 1998. Her body was
found nearly a month later in the Sam Houston National Forest with a piece
of pantyhose around her neck.
Rytting had three experts, including current Harris County Medical
Examiner Dr. Luis Sanchez, testify during a July 2007 evidentiary hearing.
Based on the presence of the insects on her decomposed body, Swearingen's
experts say Trotter died after Dec. 11 and as late as Dec. 18, when they
say insect infestation occurred, contradicting state evidence.
Swearingen was arrested on Dec. 11 on an unrelated charge and remained in
jail until his trial.
Prosecutors contend that Trotter was killed on the same day she was
abducted, and their evidence was bolstered by Carter's autopsy report. She
had determined that Trotter's body had been in the woods for 25 days, and
said the date of death was Dec. 8, 1998.
In the report, Carter also noted that she had removed and dissected the
pancreas and other internal organs. Sanchez, however, testified in July
2007 that if Trotter's body had been exposed to the elements for 25 days,
those organs would have liquefied, and an examination and dissection of
them would not have been possible.
Carter later reviewed the case and reversed her opinion.
Rytting said he will file another appeal in the federal court and
petitions for clemency with the Texas Pardons and Parole Board and with
Gov. Rick Perry. He accused prosecutors of "hiding behind legal
technicalities to kill an innocent man."
Marc Brumberger, who handles appellate and post-conviction cases for the
Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, could not be reached for
comment on Friday.
Trotter's parents said they felt relieved to learn Swearingen's appeal had
been denied and an execution date set.
"On Monday I got the call, and I was very overcome with emotion," said
Sandra Trotter, the victim's mother. "It was like I couldn't believe it
was set. I can only pray this is the end. It's been 10 years."
But she said she also is painfully aware that things could change. Last
year, Swearingen received a stay on Jan. 24, 2007, the day before he was
to die by injection.
Melissa Trotter would have been 29 this year. Sandra Trotter said she
often wonders what would her daughter be doing with her life and what she
would have accomplished.
Trotter said she and her husband will attend Swearingen's execution. She
said she wants him to see that she is thriving.
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Dallas-area cop killer loses federal court appeal
The convicted killer of a Dallas-area police officer has moved closer to
execution by losing a federal court appeal that challenged the competence
of his lawyers at his capital murder trial more than a decade ago.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week turned down Kenneth
Mosley, 50, who was seeking permission to pursue additional appeals of his
conviction for the 1997 shooting death of Garland police officer Michael
Moore. Moore was gunned down trying to stop Mosley's robbery of a bank.
Evidence showed Mosley already had robbed a Bank One branch in Garland in
January 1997, showed up at the same bank the following month and was
recognized by employees as he waited in line. They called police and
Moore, a 10-year veteran, was among officers to respond.
He approached Mosley and was fatally shot in the ensuing struggle as both
he and Mosley fell through a window. Mosley was shot in the wrist by
At his trial, Mosley's lawyers didn't deny he shot the officer but tried
to show Mosley didn't intend to kill him. They also argued drug use was to
blame for his behavior.
Mosley, identified in Texas prison records as a native of Flint, Mich.,
testified he never knew his gun went off, saying it was fired by accident
5 times as he was trying to surrender it to Moore. But from the witness
stand, he also launched into a profanity-laced tirade against the
officer's family and other police officers. Jail officers also testified
that after his conviction, he was belligerent while in lockup and said it
would make his day to kill another cop.
Dallas County jurors deliberated 30 minutes before deciding Mosley should
be put to death.
In their request to the New Orleans-based appeals court for a certificate
of appealability, Mosley's appellate lawyers argued trial attorneys were
ineffective because they failed to investigate and present mitigating
evidence on his behalf, that they failed to object to testimony from the
officer's widow and failed to contest the admitting of an entire
investigation of the shooting by a prosecution expert who testified the
final gunshot to Moore was fired from more than a foot away.
The testimony supported prosecution contentions Mosley stepped back to
fire a final "coup de grace shot." They also challenged what they said was
improper impeachment of a defense witness by prosecutors and said trial
lawyers improperly failed to challenge a portion of jury instructions.
Evidence showed Mosley sexually assaulted a woman in 1985, had other
arrests for marijuana and possession of illegal knives, that he was
arrested for stealing merchandise from a Home Depot and then taking the
items back for cash refunds, and for robbing a Home Depot at gunpoint 6
days before the officer's shooting.
The appeals court, in its ruling late Tuesday, said Mosley's trial lawyers
conducted a "reasonable investigation" by interviewing him, family
members, friends, co-workers and a counselor.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and a federal district court earlier
upheld Mosley's conviction and death sentence. Mosley does not yet have an
(source: Associated Press)