As Leslie noted yesterday, in her piece about Judge Andy Chatham finally, officially declaring Richard Miles innocent two years after he was let out of prison, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins noted, out of nowhere, that his great-grandfather had been executed by the state of Texas. The DA, a former defense attorney, didn't say anything more than that during the hearing; only later did the details come out about the crime and punishment. As the Associated Press recaps this afternoon:
According to state criminal records and news accounts, [Richard] Johnson escaped from prison three times while serving a 35-year sentence for burglary, and he was charged with killing a man after his third escape. He was convicted of murder in October 1931 and executed in the electric chair in August 1932.
Said Watkins in the courtroom on Thursday, Miles's wrongful imprisonment only served as one more reminder, as if one were needed, that there are innocent men behind bars. Said the district attorney yesterday as he stood in front of many of Dallas County's exonerees, "I think the conversation needs to be broadened as it relates to our justice system."
The AP picked up on that and has posted today a lengthy piece in which Watkins says reform is needed in Texas when it comes to the death penalty. He's not specific; he acknowledges that much. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, the Houston Democrat, agrees: Change is needed ... but when it'll come, he too has no idea. But, again, from the AP:
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While Watkins doesn't take a position on his great-grandfather's guilt, he said hearing about the incident made him think harder about whether defendants, particularly African-Americans, are being treated fairly by the courts. Watkins, the first African-American district attorney in Texas, said he remains troubled by allegations that faulty evidence and prosecutorial misconduct were used to secure convictions. Watkins did not offer specific proposals for changes or suggest halting executions, but he said he wanted state lawmakers to take a look at how the death penalty is handled in counties.
"I think in Dallas County, we're getting it right," he said. "But I think the larger responsibility is for other places to get it right."