Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins created a conviction integrity unit. He invited law students into his office to help probe for wrongful convictions. And there is at least one other way Watkins differs from most other prosecutors: He is personally opposed to capital punishment. In recent interviews, Watkins discussed those feelings and how he reconciles them with Texas law and the policies of his office.
Why are you opposed to capital punishment?
I’m a human being, and as a human being, I will not kill anybody. I don’t want to use my position to take a life, even though you may go out and do a heinous crime. I may be even worse than you because I have the full weight of the government behind me. For me to use the full weight of the government to do the same thing that you did, is that justifiable?
We just agreed to seek the death penalty against a guy that raped a 3-year-old girl and strangled her and left her under a bed. When I see that, the human side of me says, "Yeah, that guy should be killed." But then the government is the supreme being, right? You’re in a supreme position. You’re higher than human existence and you should carry yourself as such.
Given your feelings, when your office seeks the death penalty, do you personally sign off on that?
Professionally that’s something I have to do . . . for the citizens I represent. . . . It’s the law and I have to implement it. I can’t let my personal views get in the way of what the public wants.
Will your feelings about the death penalty ever affect the policy of your office?
I would like to think that I have the courage to stand up and say no [to capital punishment]. But I’m not at that point. I don’t know if I ever will be. It’s so early in my career as DA. I don’t have any seniority. I don’t have any credibility. . . . That might be a fight that I should fight, but at this point it’s too early.
Do decisions on capital cases cause you any sleepless nights?
All the time. Not just the ones that I make the decision on. Every time I read in the newspaper that someone is going to the death chamber, I don’t sleep. . . . They just did one last week with one of the Texas Seven. I pay attention to that. That’s something I struggle with, even though the person did something really bad.
Are you concerned your position on capital punishment will hurt you politically?
I think it will, obviously. I can foresee the attacks that will come my way. But at the end of the day, the public wants honesty and openness. The fact that I am publicly trying to come to a conclusion on this is good for the system, and it’s good for politics. I don’t think politicians are honest enough. — Tim Madigan