Editorial: Race and the death penalty
Published:23 January 2013 08:18 PM
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins wants to make sure Texas executions are not carried out if racial bias played an unfair role in a defendant’s death sentence.
No argument. Good goal, in general.
Now comes the hard part — getting there.
Watkins said this week that he is preparing a proposal, the Racial Justice Act, that would allow a death row inmate to bring up the issue of race in state appeals. North Carolina has a measure like that on the books, and three death-row inmates — two of whom killed law enforcement officers — used it to overturn their sentences in favor of life in prison last month. Their lawyers argued that racial bias affected the sentencing and jury selection in the three emotionally charged cases.
Whether Texas defense lawyers need or should have that tool is an important debate to have in the state Capitol among legal experts and lawmakers.
This newspaper opposes the death penalty on grounds that it can never be immune from human error and is unevenly applied. More than half of Texas’ 254 counties have never sent a single person to death row in the modern era, and studies have indicated that the races of the killer and the victim affect decisions, from prosecutors to juries, on whether to apply capital punishment.
Abolishing the death penalty is not Watkins’ goal, though he has made no secret of his qualms about it. Still, we applaud any effort to immunize the use of that punishment from error and bias.
The district attorney has often expressed his view that attitudes toward race affect outcomes in the criminal justice system. He comes to this place both professionally and with the acutely personal perspective of a black man whose great-grandfather was executed and buried in the state prison cemetery in Huntsville.
It’s ironic that despite Watkins’ uneasiness about capital punishment, Dallas County has emerged as the leading death penalty county in Texas during his six years in office. He has sent eight inmates to death row beginning in 2008, five of them black and one Hispanic.
That points up the difficulty in drawing inferences from statistics. On paper, Watkins’ office might look prone to come down hard on black defendants, but that wouldn’t square with the DA’s background and the race-neutral approach he says he employs.
But something underlies the statewide pattern of sending mostly minorities to death row in recent years, and lawmakers should explore the reasons. Crime rates for blacks are historically far higher, but does that entirely explain the disparity?
The downside of Watkins’ advocacy on this issue is that the 2013 lawmaking session is off and running, and there’s no bill yet. Watkins says he’s been working on it for months and hopes to find an author soon to carry it.
Those conversations ideally would have taken place months ago. Yet the reality of a racially charged proposal is that it can take multiple lawmaking sessions to make headway.
This session should be the one to get the discussion started, and time’s already slipping away.
A matter of fairness
“The issue that we’re bringing to light is to make sure that everything is fair, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, and you’re treated just like anyone else. … And if you deserve a death sentence, then you will get it. If you didn’t, then you shouldn’t be on death row.”
Craig Watkins, Dallas County district attorney
SOURCE: The Associated Press