photography by Manny Rodriguez

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.

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.

"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.'" photography by Manny Rodriguez

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?

Watkins: Yes.

D Magazine:
Did the two of you speak much before or after?

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?

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.

Write to [email protected].