"Dallas County’s dubious death penalty distinction," is the Dallas Morning News editorial.
Houston’s Harris County developed a mythic reputation over the years for pursuit of the death penalty.
That was then. Dallas County is now.
Today, no other Texas county is close to the 11 death sentences handed down by Dallas County juries over the past six years. The county accounts for one of every five Texas death sentences in that time, according to a year-end report by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Becoming the death penalty capital of the leading death penalty state is a gruesome distinction for a modern urban county. And it’s perhaps an unlikely distinction, considering the profile of District Attorney Craig Watkins.
A black man whose great-grandfather was executed in Huntsville in 1932, Watkins has exhibited sensitivity about the death penalty and voiced misgivings on the moral level. He has also kept a focus on ferreting out flawed convictions from years past, giving him a reputation as a reformer intent on righting wrongs.
Today's Morning News reports, "Dallas County DA Craig Watkins leads state in death penalty convictions." It's written by Jennifer Emily.
Since taking office in 2007, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins — a man with a reputation for freeing people from prison — has won more death sentences for killers than any other DA in Texas during that time.
Historically, the state’s largest county, Harris County, has filled death row the most frequently. But from 2007 to 2013, Dallas County sent 12 to death row while Harris County sent nine. Tarrant County was third with seven.
These numbers are a stark contrast to Watkins’ evolving stance on whether he supports the death penalty and his revelation in 2012 that his great-grandfather was executed by the state. Whatever personal ambivalence Watkins has had about what he frequently calls “the ultimate punishment,” he has sought death sentences repeatedly since being elected.
Elisabeth Semel, director of the University of California at Berkeley law school’s Death Penalty Clinic, said Dallas County’s “disproportionate pursuit of death sentences really stands out against this overall decline” nationally. Semel noted that only one of the defendants sentenced to death under Watkins was white. Three were Hispanic. Eight were black.
"Dallas County surges forward in new death penalty sentences," is the Austin Chronicle report by Jordan Smith.
Indeed, while the absolute number of new death sentences handed out in Texas remained low in 2013 – just nine new sentences were delivered, the same as in 2012 (up by one over the eight delivered in 2010 and 2011) – the use of the death penalty remains localized, and the imposition of the ultimate sentence on minority defendants remains high. In the last two years, five of the 18 people sentenced to death were from Dallas County. Travis County has sentenced just three persons to death since 2008, and none in 2013. And since 2008, two-thirds – or more – of all new death sentences were imposed on minorities. In Dallas County, for example, of the 11 men sentenced to die since 2008, eight are black and two are Hispanic. In Harris County, 12 of the last 14 defendants sentenced to death were black and the other two were Hispanic. Harris County last sent a white man to death row in 2004, according to the report.