Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

Texans will have an opportunity to revisit a question that should haunt anyone who believes in the integrity of our criminal justice system: Did our state execute an innocent man? 
The new film “Trial by Fire” tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for setting a fire to his home in Corsicana that killed his three young daughters in 1991. The film is based on an investigative story by David Grann that appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, five years after Willingham was executed over his vociferous protestations of innocence.
In my experience of serving 8 years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and 4 years as a state district judge in Travis County, the Willingham case stands out to me for many of the same reasons it stood out to filmmaker Edward Zwick, who calls it a veritable catalogue of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system and, especially, the death penalty. False testimony, junk science, a jailhouse informant, and ineffe…

Death penalty opponent to lean on Dallas DA; SMU professor acting after report suggests innocent man died

Craig Watkins
The Columbia Human rights Law Review opened up a new can of worms on the death penalty in Texas this week with its book-length examination of the 1989 execution of Carlos DeLuna.

The bottom line, according to the report, is that the state executed the wrong man for the stabbing death of 24-year-old Wand Lopez in a Corpus Christi convenience store. Researchers say prosecutors bypassed another person who bragged of killing Lopez.

On the heels of that report, death penalty abolitionist Rick Halperin, a professor at Southern Methodist University, told the website Dallas South News he would be on the courthouse steps in Dallas on Friday to lean on Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins to stop seeking lethal injection in capital cases.

Asked Thursday whether Watkins had read the Columbia report and, if so, would altter his stance on the death penalty, spokeswoman Jamille Bradfield released this terse statement: "We are declining comment."

"This report highlights only the tip of the iceberg," Halperin says. "The DeLuna case is not a singular aberration of a person who has been wrongfully convicted and executed in Texas. In fact, there have been and remain numerous innocent people who have been sent to death row and executed, or people currenly on death row waiting to be executed."

Halperin notes that the community need only consider the Dallas County Jail, where 32 men have been released after being wrongfully convicted. Others such as Ben Spencer remain.

Spencer has been in jail 22 years, and "despite the judge who sentenced him now admitting he believes Ben is innocent, Watkins won't re-open the case, which defies his own commments that the main job of a DA is to do justice," Halperin says. "But seeking death and leaving innocent people in jail is not justice. It's morally unacceptable and violative of people's rights and dignity."

Dallas County leads the U.S. in the number of people exonerated after being wrongfully convicted, Halperin says. "These are not death row cases but they're symptomatic of continued mistakes within the criminal justice system. Craig Watkins keeps saying that he is morally opposed to the death penalty, yet he continues to go into the courtroom to seek death. Either he is or isn't for the death penalty. This is an opportunity for him to deliver consistency and stop being hypocritical about what he says and how he acts."

As the Dallas Morning News has reported many times, Watkins' view on capital punishment swings like a pendulum. When first taking office in 2007, Watkins declared that he personally opposed the death penalty on moral and religious grounds.

Recently, he reveled that his own great-grandfather had been executed by the state and said the state needed to look into reforms.

TIMELINE: Craig Watkins' evolving position:

January 2007----The newly elected DA told The News' editorial board that he would not shy away from employing the death penalty to seek a new trial for Thomas Miller-El, whose 1986 death penalty conviction had been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court over concerns that prosecutors had intentionally excluded minorities from his jury. "He [Miller-El] needs to be on death row. He should have been dead a long time ago," Watkins said. The following year, Watkins' office agreed to a plea deal that took the death penalty off the table but sent Miller-El to prison for life.

November 2007----Newsweek reported that Watkins was not sure how he felt about the death penalty and that "it depends on which day you ask me."

September 2008----Troubled that innocent people had ben imprisoned by faulty prosecutions, Watkins announced that his office would re-examine nearly 40 death penalty convictions and would seek to halt executions, if necessary, to give the reviews time to proceed. "It's not saying I'm putting a moratoium on the death penalty," he said. "It's saying that mayabe we should withdraw those dates and look at those cases from a new perspective to make sure that those individuals that are on death row need to be there and they need to be executed."

August 2009----Watkins said a particularly cold-blooded Dallas county double killing had made him rethink hsi position. While still conflicted, he said, "I'm starting to change a little bit....You know this guy didn't have any remorse whatsoever. And maybe it's true that there are just people out there that need to be dealt with in this way."

August 2010----Watkins, while mired in a rough re-election race, said he had changed his mind about capital punishemt. "I came in with a certain philosophical view. I don't have that anymore." he told the News. "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." Watkins said he still had concerns that prosecutors somewhere might send the wrong person to death row. But he said that even when he was opposed to the death penalty, he still allowed his office to seek it when warranted. "I cannot argue against it morally, but I car argue against it broadly," Watkins said. "Given the DNA exonerations, there's a chance we've executed someone in Texas who did not commit crime."

February 2012----Watkins made this extraordinary revelation in passing at a news conference: His great-grandfather was executed byt he state of Texas. He balked at explaining his reason for the disclosure to the newspaper but later told The Associated Press that he was calling on state legislators to review death penalty procedures to ensure that they were fairly administered. "I don't know if I'm the voice to that," he told the AP. "I just know, here I am, and I have there experiences." He later told The News that the spark for such a debate "is going to come from someone in a district attorney's seat."

Sources: Dallas Morning News & Dallas South News, May 18, 2012

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Craig Watkins' tenure as Dallas County's top prosecutor has earned him a national reputation. Now, as Watkins publicly acknowledges that his great-grandfather was executed in Texas almost 80 years ago, he called on state...
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