September 16, 2008

Hang 'em high county to reverse course

Dallas will review all pending executions

Texas executes far more people than any other U.S. state. And within Texas, Dallas County is second only to Harris County (Houston). But now, a crusading prosecutor is set to reverse course, calling for a potential halt to all proceedings until the guilt of each condemned man can be ascertained.

"I don't want someone to be executed on my watch for something they didn't do," said the maverick D.A.

As today's Dallas Morning News reports,
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.

"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.
Under Watkins' proposal, all pending death cases will be reviewed by his office's Conviction Integrity Unit, which was created last year.

It remains to be seen whether this remarkable about-face will rub off on Harris County, which as of the latest count had surpassed the next-highest state (Virginia) in number of people executed.

The full story is here. Related coverage in the Dallas Morning News is here.

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