Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Dallas County DA wants to re-examine nearly all of pending death row cases

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins

06:37 AM CDT on Tuesday, September 16, 2008
By JENNIFER EMILY and STEVE McGONIGLE / The Dallas Morning News

Troubled that innocent people have been imprisoned by faulty prosecutions, District Attorney Craig Watkins said Monday that he would re-examine nearly 40 death penalty convictions and would seek to halt executions, if necessary, to give the reviews time to proceed.

Mr. Watkins told The Dallas Morning News that problems exposed by 19 DNA-based exonerations in Dallas County have convinced him he should ensure that no death row inmate is actually innocent.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins "It's not saying I'm putting a moratorium on the death penalty," said Mr. Watkins, whose reviews would be of all of the cases now on death row handled by his predecessors. "It's saying that maybe 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."

He cited the exonerations and stories by The News about problems with those prosecutions as the basis for his decision. The exonerations have routinely revealed faulty eyewitness testimony and, in a few cases, prosecutorial misconduct.

Fred Moss, a law professor at Southern Methodist University, said he had never heard of another prosecutor in the country who had conducted the type of review Mr. Watkins proposed.

"It's really quite extraordinary," Mr. Moss said.

Toby Shook, who sent several people to death row while he was a Dallas County prosecutor, said Mr. Watkins was imposing an unnecessary new level of review and a hardship on victims' families.

"Perhaps he hasn't thought this through, but essentially what he's saying is, 'There is one more court of appeal and that's me,' " said Mr. Shook, who was defeated by Mr. Watkins two years ago. "That's going to be devastating to a family."

Mr. Watkins, who has struggled publicly with his feelings about capital punishment, said studying the small pool of death row cases could illustrate larger problems in the justice system and provide legislators with an incentive to enact reforms.

But he said it was the exoneration of Patrick Waller in July – not his personal qualms – that prompted him to pursue reviewing death penalty cases, although he said it's a topic that has been on his mind since an exoneration occurred in his first week in office.

Mr. Waller was cleared of a 1992 robbery-rape. The statute of limitations to prosecute the true perpetrators has expired even though they have admitted to the crimes. Had previous District Attorney Bill Hill not denied testing, the results could have prevented one of the men from being paroled.

"That's really what got me to thinking," Mr. Watkins said. "This is larger than just having innocent folks in jail. This is about having criminals out on the street with cover to go and commit their offenses."

Mr. Watkins has taken steps to halt an execution before.

Last September, he asked to withdraw the execution date for Joseph Roland Lave when the district attorney's office realized that evidence requested by his appellate attorneys was not released and possibly lied about.

Mr. Watkins said that he believes Mr. Lave is guilty but that he was not prosecuted fairly because evidence was withheld. Mr. Lave was sentenced to death for a 1992 robbery and double murder in Richardson.

To halt an execution, judges from the trial court where the conviction was obtained would have to sign the order to approve withdrawing the execution date, said Dallas County state District Judge Andy Chatham.

Judge Chatham, who signed the order to withdraw Mr. Lave's execution date, said Monday that any similar requests would need specific reasons for stopping the execution. Those reasons are DNA testing or a writ of habeas corpus that showed the need for additional court proceedings.

"What you're not going to have is 'Judge, we just want to look at it,' " said Judge Chatham, who is presiding over a death penalty case this week from Mr. Watkins' office. "There has to be some reason."

Mr. Watkins said he believes a judge will grant the request if both the state and defense attorneys agree. Mr. Watkins said he would request new execution dates if a review shows the inmates were prosecuted fairly and are guilty of the crime.

The DA's district attorney's office is this week seeking the death penalty against a man who was convicted Monday of killing his two children. Mr. Watkins also plans to question witnesses himself in another death penalty case slated for later this year.

"At the end of the day, I'm not saying these people shouldn't be executed," Mr. Watkins said.

But, he added, "I don't want someone to be executed on my watch for something they didn't do."

Mr. Watkins said the cases will be investigated by the office's conviction integrity unit, which was created last year and is reviewing DNA tests requests denied under Mr. Hill.

The district attorney's office will review the oldest cases first because those are the most likely to be set for execution.

Only two men from Dallas County, Gregory Edward Wright and Robert Jean Hudson, currently have scheduled execution dates. Both men were sent to death row in unrelated stabbing deaths of women.

Defense attorney Richard Franklin, who represented Mr. Lave as well as other capital murder defendants, said such a review is necessary because of potential prosecutorial misconduct and the problems with eyewitness testimony.

"If there are any death penalty cases that rely on eyewitness testimony alone, then they need to be reviewed," Mr. Franklin said. "All the science points to the fact that eyewitness testimony is no good."

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