By Alan Bean
Dallas County DA Craig Watkins is morally opposed to the death penalty, yet he continues to ask juries to sentence defendants to death. Professor Rick Halperin wants to know why.
Technically, the answer is simple. Prosecutors are public servants, politicians really, and are thus accountable to the wishes of the constituency they represent. A solid majority of Dallas County residents favors capital punishment, so Craig Watkins bows to their preferences.
Prosecutors who personally oppose the war on drugs, by the same reasoning, continue to indict drug dealers because it’s the law. Prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys, the theory goes, are obligated to enforce rules created by others.
Lawyers can do things the rest of us cannot. We cannot prosecute or defend suspected criminals, for instance, nor can we preside at trial–those roles have been delegated to particular legal professionals. But we must also realize that legal professionals are shackled to the rules of their profession in ways that can be quite limiting. This may be necessary, but it minimizes their ability to argue that the emperor has no clothes. According to legal theory, the emperor is fully clothed by definition.
It is generally assumed that people advocating for criminal justice reform should be trained attorneys, and many aspects of advocacy work do require legal expertise. But we also need non lawyers like Rick Halperin in the game.
In her wildly successful The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, Michelle Alexander underscores the need for grassroots advocacy.
Not surprisingly, as civil rights advocates converted a grassroots movement into a legal campaign, and civil rights leaders became political insiders, many civil rights organizations became top-heavy with lawyers. This development enhanced their ability to wage legal battles but impeded their ability to acknowledge or respond to the emergence of a new caste system. Lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve—i.e., problems that can be solved through litigation. The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem. (p. 214)
The argument that prosecutors opposed to the death penalty must nonetheless ask juries for death sentences is driven by Alice in Wonderland logic. Thanks to Dr. Halperin for pointing that out. Thanks also to the wonderful Dallas South Blog for printing this story.
Dallas South News Wire (Southern Methodist University)
On the heels of Columbia Law School researchers’ May 16 report proving that Carlos DeLuna was wrongfully executed in Texas in 1989, Rick Halperin, one of this country’s leading death penalty abolitionists, will join others at the Dallas County Courthouse on Friday at noon to appeal to Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins to stop seeking death sentences for people charged with capital crimes “because it is clear that innocent people continue to be convicted and sent to death row in Texas,” Halperin says.
Columbia’s full report, “Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction,” is the result of five years of investigation, and includes video clips and interviews about the case.
Police booking photo for Carlos DeLuna
“This report highlights only the tip of the iceberg,” Halperin says. “The DeLuna case is a 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 currently 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 he is innocent, Watkins won’t re-open the case, which defies his own comments 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.”
Those who have been executed in Texas despite strong-to-overwhelming evidence of innocence include Cameron Todd Willingham, Claude Jones, Ruben Cantu, Joe Nichols, Carlos Santana, Leonel Herrera, James Betherd, Shaka Sankofa (aka Gary Graham), Greg Wright and Frances Newton.
“In addition there are people currently on death row with strong claims of innocence, including Hank Skinner, Tony Medina, Howard Guidry, Brian Davis, Max Soffar and Rob Will,” Halperin says. “And 12 people have been released from Texas’ death row because they were innocent, among them Anthony Graves, Robert Springsteen, Ernest Ray Willis, Ricardo Aldape Guerra, Muneer Deeb, Clarence Brandley and Randall Dale Adams.”
“The overwhelming factual evidence is that this state has executed at least one innocent person and most likely many more who were innocent,” Halperin says. “The day should come immediately that all DAs in this state stop seeking death as a judicial punishment.”