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.We sat there for a couple hours, and then the warden’s secretary comes in and makes a call to the attorney general maybe 20 minutes before, makes sure there are no legal issues. And they were on speaker phone, so we got to hear the conversation. There are no legal issues. And so we sit there for another, I guess, 15 minutes, and then the warden and the director of prisons and the guys—I guess they call them a tie-down team, the ones that are going to actually bring the prisoner to the death chamber—they all walk out and go get the guy prepped up. And 10 minutes later, they get all the witnesses, and we walk to the execution chamber, which is very small.
D Magazine: How many witnesses were there in the room?
Watkins: There are two rooms. You are not in the same room with the condemned’s family. You don’t even see them. There is kind of like a quadrangle. So, we were—the window that we were seeing through was, he was laying down on the gurney, and we are on the side of him. And I assume—based upon how he looked around and who he directed his conversation to when he was making his last statement—that his folks were somewhat in front of him.
So you walk into the chamber, and it’s very small. I mean, you would be surprised how small it is. There are no chairs in there; you are standing the whole time. And you walk in and they get you as close to this window as possible, so you can see the process. And so he’s strapped down with a needle in his arm. Then the director of prisons, who is on the other side, he opens the door and says, “Warden, you may proceed.” And then the warden asks, “Would you like to make a last statement?” And in the room there is a warden and the priest. The warden is standing at the head of the condemned, and the priest is standing at the feet with his hand on the person’s leg. The priest is sort of comforting him, and he has got a Bible in his hand.
There is a microphone over the condemned and he is still lying on the gurney, still lying there. So he gives his last statement. He lifts his head and looks to the victim’s side and apologizes, then he looks to his side and says, “I love you,” and all these things. And then he lies back and says, “Warden, I am ready.” And he lies his head back down. And then the warden nods his head. And the whole time the condemned is looking at his family. He is whispering, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
And then, all of a sudden, you notice that it appears that he is falling asleep and gasping for air—like he is snoring, basically. You could classify it as snoring or as gasping for air. You see his chest moving, and then I guess very quickly—maybe two minutes in—his chest stops moving. And we stand there, I guess, for another 10 minutes, and everybody is just kind of standing there.
D Magazine: In total silence?
Watkins: No one’s talking. No one’s saying anything. And then you notice that the condemned, he starts to turn this bluish color. So I guess that’s when all his functions have stopped. And then a doctor walks in and takes his vital signs and announces that the person is—he looks at the clock and announces, “The person died at 6:22.” And then they open the door and we all walk out. Very clinical. It gives you the appearance that the condemned is in control, when in actuality he is not. But it does give the appearance that the person is in control. It’s very peaceful, very respectful toward the condemned.
And I can understand when the victims have a hard time dealing with the process as it is now, because it didn’t appear that there was any pain or suffering. If there was any, I couldn’t see it. It just seemed as if it was like a medical procedure, like when you get anesthesia and you go to sleep. That’s the way it appeared. And so when it’s over, they pronounce the person dead, they pull the sheet over his head. When you walk in the room, they lock you in.
D Magazine: They lock you in?
Watkins: Yeah, you are locked in. So then they unlock the door and walk you out.
D Magazine: Who else was in the room?
Watkins: Two of my investigators. Toby Shook was there. There were some reporters there. None of the victim’s family was there. There were two women; I didn’t know who they were. So there were about 12 to 15 people in the room with us.
D Magazine: Toby Shook, whom you beat to become district attorney in 2006, he prosecuted that case?
D Magazine: Did the two of you speak much before or after?
Watkins: Well, yeah. I mean, I talked to him afterward. While we were walking, he was like, “Thanks for coming,” and that was it, pretty much.
D Magazine: When that was all over, what did you feel like? Was it different than what you expected it would feel like, witnessing somebody die right in front of you?
Watkins: I kind of had a feeling that it would be very clinical, and you wouldn’t have much of a feeling one way or the other. I didn’t think it would change my point of view as it relates to capital punishment. The only thing that I think changed about it was you have this perception that the people that carry it out are somewhat bloodthirsty and they are champing at the bit. You know: “Let’s go get this guy.” That was not the case. None of that whatsoever. I have a respect for the people that actually have to carry through that process. So my point of view as it relates to capital punishment is still the same. I think that in Texas we have gotten close to making it as humane as possible. So it was very humane and respectful toward the condemned and the victim’s family.
D Magazine: What’s your ultimate goal regarding the death penalty?
Watkins: The broader issue is, look, I have walked 25 men out of prison for crimes they didn’t commit. We have gotten this case in Williamson County, where the DA withheld evidence, or it’s alleged that he withheld evidence. Because of that, a guy spent 25 years on death row. The Supreme Court of Texas has instituted a court of inquiry to look into the actions of this individual. At the time he was DA; now he is a judge. You have got the Todd Willingham case. We have had all of these folks who have been exonerated that were on death row throughout our nation.
And so my concern, basically, is, look, we are seeking the ultimate punishment against someone, and we need to have all the safeguards in place to make sure that we don’t wrongly execute someone. And I think with all the evidence that we have seen, I think anyone that does not come to the conclusion that a person has been executed in this country for a crime they didn’t commit is being irresponsible. So that’s my position. Like I said, I can argue from my moralistic standpoint all day, but that’s not where the argument should be had. It should be one of logistics. Are we making mistakes? Do we need to reevaluate the process to make sure we are not making mistakes?
D Magazine: Do you think there is momentum toward making that happen?
Watkins: Obviously. I mean if you have got the Texas Supreme Court convening a court of inquiry against a sitting judge who prosecuted a case 25 years ago—yes, there is progress being made on this issue. Because I think it transcends political lines. I mean, my critics will say that I am just a liberal Democrat. When you have got a Republican Supreme Court who said, okay there are issues as it relates to capital punishment and we are going to take this issue up by convening a court of inquiry, then it transcends political lines. You can criticize me about my personal morals all you want. As a DA, my job is to carry out the law. I have had to preside over nine capital punishment cases, which is more than any DA in history here in Dallas County. I have done that. I have done my job.
I think we need to get away from the moral argument and make it one more about logistics as to whether or not we are making mistakes. And when a mistake is made, some want to use politics and hide the mistake. We are talking about a person’s life. We should put our pride aside and look at it from the standpoint of, first of all, getting the right person that committed the crime. And then, if we are going to seek to deal out the punishment, make sure that person that we are seeking it against deserves it.
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