Dallas DA Craig Watkins on Witnessing His First Execution
Morally, he's against capital punishment, but his job sometimes requires that he sends people to their death.
On February 22, Craig Watkins spoke to reporters at a press conference following a hearing that formally exonerated Richard Miles, who had spent 14 years in prison for the murder of one man and the attempted murder of another. Watkins had done this plenty of times before. Since he became Dallas County district attorney in 2007, his office’s conviction integrity unit has helped free more than 20 men who were wrongfully convicted for one reason or another. But this time was different. Almost as an aside, Watkins dropped a bombshell.
“People don’t know that my great-grandfather was executed by this state,” he said.
The remark sent reporters scrambling to learn more about the case. In 1931, three months after escaping from prison, Watkins’ great-grandfather Richard Johnson was arrested, along with a man named Richard Brown, for a rape-murder-robbery in Wichita Falls. They were both convicted and put to death by electrocution on August 10, 1932.
Less than a week after making that revelation, Watkins traveled to Huntsville to witness his first execution. The state put to death George Rivas, the ringleader of the Texas 7 gang, which broke out of prison in 2000 and went on a crime spree that ended with the murder of an Arlington police officer.
The next day, Watkins called to talk about his great-grandfather, what it was like to watch another man die, and how his opinion of the death penalty has been affected by five years as district attorney. It was the only print media interview he gave after watching the execution.
D Magazine: A week ago, you revealed that your great-grandfather had been executed by the state in 1932. I think it caught many people off guard, given how often you’ve spoken about the death penalty. How long have you known about the case, and why did you mention it now?
Craig Watkins: I have known for a while. Yeah, I have known for a long time. I mean, it was one of those kinds of deals where you would hear the grown-ups talking in passing about it, you know, my grandmother. But you never knew—I never knew—the specifics of it. I just knew it was embarrassing for my grandmother and very difficult for her to deal with. And so it wasn’t until I became DA that I started to find out more about it. And then I took it upon myself to explore the issue. I actually have a transcript of the trial. The reports that you have read, I guess, in our local paper are painted somewhat differently than what the transcript says.
D Magazine: What’s different in the transcript?
Watkins: I don’t want to direct your attention to whether or not the other person or my great-grandfather were guilty or innocent. I do think we need to factor into the equation this was 1932, and, as it relates to people of color, African-American males, things were very different. So that was never portrayed whatsoever in their reporting, which it should have been. And you can go online and pull up articles from that day, that time, and you will see certain things that will call into question the process or the procedures that were put in place at the time, as it related to these two individuals who were accused of this crime. That’s not to say that I am saying that my great-grandfather is innocent or guilty. I just know that I think any reasonable person will agree that times were very different back then, how just the system was back then.
D Magazine: It’s interesting that you have something deep in your family’s history that has so much of a bearing on what you are doing now, or at least the questions you are facing: has justice been properly carried out, and is the state doing the right thing with the death penalty? And you were facing both that week, speaking to press after another exoneration and scheduled to witness an execution a few days later. It makes sense, then, that your great-grandfather would come up. But, beyond that, you’ve been speaking about the death penalty quite a bit recently. Why now?
Watkins: The Texas Supreme Court put the court of inquiry in place against the prosecutor out in Williamson County [former District Attorney Ken Anderson, now a state district judge] to determine if he committed prosecutorial misconduct with all the individuals that have been exonerated in Williamson County that have been on death row. And here is Dallas County—we have had all of these individuals exonerated. We have exonerated, I believe, 25 or 27 individuals in Dallas County. I thought it was an appropriate issue to bring to the forefront and expand the debate as it relates to whether or not we are pursuing the death penalty fairly and legally. And it really didn’t have anything to do with my own personal moralistic views of the death penalty. It was more about, logistically, if we are going to seek to deal out the punishment, do we have the restraints in place to make sure that when we do mete out the punishment we are doing it correctly?
D Magazine: In an interview with the Dallas Morning News in August 2010, you said, “I came in with a certain philosophical view. I don’t have that anymore. From a religious standpoint, I think it’s an archaic way of doing justice. But in this job, I’ve seen people who cannot be rehabilitated.” Was there a case that specifically changed your view?
Watkins: No, no. Actually, I am not changing. I never changed it, actually. I was interviewed and I expressed my moralistic point of view, and I expressed the logistics of the death penalty. And I never said that my point of view changed. I know that the headline that was written the next day was that my point of view had changed [“Watkins No Longer Opposes Death Penalty”] when, in actuality, it hadn’t. I don’t know if intellectually they were understanding what I said, or they just wanted to get a headline or write a story. I don’t know.
But my position has always been the same. And that position is, look, morally I am against the death penalty, and I even said this to the reporter at the time, that I could be sitting next to a person that has the same moral views and we go to the same church. They may actually believe in capital punishment, and we will argue until the cows come home. So it’s not an issue of morality as it relates to capital punishment at this point, because people believe in different things. And as the DA, I am not going to place my morals on citizens of Dallas County. The issue that I raised in that interview was basically logistically. We have had all of these individuals exonerated, we have seen all of these people exonerated from death row, and so there lies the issue that we should address. Not what I believe morally, or what someone believes morally. The issue is whether or not we are going to make a mistake, and when we are seeking the ultimate punishment, we need to make sure that we get it right.
And so my moral point of view, I think, is really moot, is not an issue. I mean, I can believe what I want to believe. The law says that in Texas that if you commit a certain type of crime and you have these certain issues that are brought up in the punishment phase, then you are eligible for capital punishment. I have pursued it nine times, more than any other recent DA in the history of Dallas County. I have done my job, although morally I may disagree with it. The law, the Constitution says that if you do a certain thing, then you are eligible for that, and so I have done that—and I have even gone further to make sure that an issue of guilt or innocence is not brought to the table. And so I haven’t changed, I haven’t flip-flopped. It’s always been the same.
D Magazine: You didn’t prosecute the Texas 7 case. Why did you feel the need to go to George Rivas’ execution?
Watkins: I will tell you why. I have to make a determination on whether or not a person will be eligible for the ultimate punishment. So the reason I went was because I have experienced all aspects of capital punishment, but I hadn’t experienced the end, and so I needed to experience that. So I can be very sensitive in the decision-making process when I make a determination if a person is eligible for the ultimate punishment. I needed to experience all aspects of it. That’s why I did it.
D Magazine: What was that day like? Walk me through the whole thing. Did you go to Huntsville that day?
Watkins: Yeah, I went to Huntsville two hours before. I got there at 4, and I went to the warden’s office, and we sat there basically for two hours. So the warden was there, and then I didn’t know that the actual director of all prisons comes, too. He came and we talked to him, and I also got to talk to several different wardens who participate in the process. And I think the misperception is that these people are bloodthirsty: “Hey, we are going to execute this guy. He did A, B, and C, and he is the worst thing in the world.” But they are not. These people are very professional. It’s very methodical. They didn’t talk whatsoever about Rivas. And, obviously, I was questioning them about the process. I was trying to get to know their own philosophical views in a subtle way. Never got to that point. Because of their professionalism, it didn’t matter. I mean, the law in Texas is that, if they commit certain crimes and a jury convicts you, and your appellate process is over, then you face the ultimate punishment.
I got to meet a whole bunch of different folks. And these are just regular people. I mean, these are good people. They are sitting there talking about their kids in school, and the road that was just built down the street. We are in Huntsville, Texas, so it’s a little country. And these are just average people, you know? And so they are very hospitable, very respectful. They were respectful of the condemned, and it was very clinical. So although I disagree from a moralistic standpoint as it relates to capital punishment, I do believe that the folks that are responsible for implementing it are very, very adept and professional in their jobs, and it’s nothing personal to them.