Dallas County Dist. Atty. Craig Watkins, right, with the exonerated Richard… (LM Otero, Associated Press )
DALLAS — On the way to witness his first execution in the town known as the "Execution Capital of the World," the Dallas County district attorney stopped at the prison cemetery to find his great-grandfather's grave.
Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery in Huntsville is the final resting place of inmates whose families could not afford burial anywhere else. Tall pines guard the grassy expanse nicknamed "Peckerwood Hill," where many gravestones bear prison identification numbers, not names.
Dist. Atty. Craig Watkins scanned row upon row of gray crosses and headstones, making quick progress in his usual cowboy boots until he found the boxy stone belonging to Richard Johnson, dated Aug. 10, 1932.
Watkins knelt beside the grave in his suit.
Engraved next to Johnson's prisoner number — 101 — was a telltale X. His great-grandfather had been executed.
His dual missions that day in February — paying respects, witnessing the execution — embodied how Watkins, Texas' first African American district attorney, grapples with his role in meting out justice.
Although morally opposed to capital punishment — he calls it "an archaic form of justice" — Watkins has sought the death penalty in nine cases, obtaining it in eight. He requested to see this execution, ordered before he took office, to fully experience the criminal justice system.
Even as he enforces the law, Watkins cites evidence of a flawed system. He has emerged as a leader in a growing national movement to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners, most of them black men.
"As an African American, you always have a doubt about the criminal justice system," he said.
A few days after Watkins, then 38, was elected to his first term in 2006, a Dallas police officer stopped him in his black $100,000 Mercedes G500 SUV.
"Whose car is this?" the officer asked.
Watkins, who at 6-foot-4 is imposing even when seated, explained that he was the new district attorney.
"He had this surprised look on his face," Watkins said.
Watkins says people often assume he grew up poor in the slums of south Dallas. He actually grew up in the middle-class Oak Cliff neighborhood, the son of teachers.
But he did have relatives who ran afoul of the law. When he visited the Huntsville prison as the district attorney, he was startled to recognize a visitor's room. He had sat there as a child, waiting to see an incarcerated uncle.
Watkins did not set out to right wrongs when he entered historically black Prairie View A&M University as an engineering major. A political science class and politically active relatives — an uncle was a four-term president of the local NAACP chapter — inspired him to go into public service.
He earned his degree in political science, went to Texas Wesleyan University School of Law and thought working as a prosecutor would lay the foundation for a political career.
When the Dallas district attorney's office rejected him three times — he's not sure why — Watkins worked for the public defender and city attorney instead.
In 2002, still a fledgling lawyer with a wife and young children, Watkins decided to run against Dist. Atty. Bill Hill. He lost, but garnered 48% of the vote.
Four years later, Hill announced he would not seek reelection. Instead, Watkins this time faced off against a prosecutor with more than 20 years' experience. His great-grandfather's story remained secret, as critics focused on his age and charged that he was too much of a novice to handle a staff of 250 lawyers and an annual budget of $36 million.
A backlash against then-President George W. Bushswept Republicans from power in the Dallas area and helped Watkins eke out a victory with 51% of the vote.
His first week in office, Watkins made two decisions that would change the course of his career.
Dallas is one of few cities that stores forensic evidence dating back to 1969, when the crime lab was created followingPresident Kennedy's assassination. But storing evidence costs money, and county leaders asked him to start destroying old evidence.
That same week, Watkins heard that a prisoner convicted under a previous district attorney was being exonerated based on DNA evidence. Watkins attended the hearing, and a reporter happened to be there.
"I apologized to the guy, the reporter wrote a story and it just caught fire — a D.A. will admit that they're wrong!" Watkins recalled.
Suddenly, activists were calling him about other problematic cases. A member of his staff suggested starting a unit to investigate suspect convictions.
Watkins hesitated. He thought about his nascent political career. He had planned so carefully.
"I was under so much scrutiny, not just this office but the outside — the media — thinking, 'He's not qualified.' "
But if he didn't do it, who would?
He persuaded county leaders to spend about $450,000 to create the country's first conviction integrity unit: two prosecutors, an investigator and a paralegal.