On this date in 1932, two African-American men were electrocuted in Huntsville, Texas.
Richard Johnson was a career criminal already serving a 35-year sentence for various burglaries when he busted out of prison in 1931. He teamed up with 20-year-old Richard Brown to rob a white couple in a parked car.
When the man, Ted Nodruft, tried to drive away, they shot him (he died the next day), and then proceeded to rape his fiancee and steal her jewelry. When caught, each man tried to throw the lion’s share of blame on the other.
These two on their own hardly stand out to posterity, and certainly not in the context of notoriously execution-friendly Texas, whose “List of individuals executed in Texas” Wikipedia entry (most states have such a page) is actually paginated by decade. Here’s the doings for the rest of the 1930s in the still-newish Texas electric chair.
We pause to note them here on this site because they made unexpected headlines earlier this year when Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins — the first elected black D.A. in Texas history — publicly revealed that Richard Johnson was his great-grandfather.
Long before that revelation, Watkins had already earned nationwide plaudits for doing what every district attorney should be doing as a matter of course: publicly emphasizing justice rather than conviction counts as his office’s guiding principle, greeting the rising tide of exonerations with a proactive program to search out potential miscarriages of justice rather than doubling down on them … hell, even apologizing to people whose lives have been ripped apart by wrongful convictions.
Watkins knew about the “dark secret of our family” for many years before he mentioned it in the run-up to witnessing his first execution (it was topical because Watkins used the trip to also visit his great-grandfather’s grave in the prison cemetery). How exactly that blood tie has helped to shape Craig Watkins’s outlook is hard to say, but not for any reticence on the DA’s part: he’s been disarmingly public about speaking to the real ambiguities and human costs of the criminal justice system that prosecutors are usually not supposed to acknowledge.
The broader issue is, look, I have walked 25 men out of prison for crimes they didn’t commit. We have gotten this case in Williamson County, where the DA withheld evidence, or it’s alleged that he withheld evidence. Because of that, a guy spent 25 years on death row. The Supreme Court of Texas has instituted a court of inquiry to look into the actions of this individual. At the time he was DA; now he is a judge. You have got the Todd Willingham case. We have had all of these folks who have been exonerated that were on death row throughout our nation.
And so my concern, basically, is, look, we are seeking the ultimate punishment against someone, and we need to have all the safeguards in place to make sure that we don’t wrongly execute someone. And I think with all the evidence that we have seen, I think anyone that does not come to the conclusion that a person has been executed in this country for a crime they didn’t commit is being irresponsible. So that’s my position. Like I said, I can argue from my moralistic standpoint all day, but that’s not where the argument should be had. It should be one of logistics. Are we making mistakes? Do we need to reevaluate the process to make sure we are not making mistakes?
Watkins personally opposes the death penalty on moral grounds, but seeks it routinely in his capacity as district attorney. Here’s the man expanding on some of those themes in a 30-minute interview with the Dallas-Fort Worth NBC affiliate:
On this day..
- 1982: Frank James Coppola, "further incarceration can only lead to my being stripped of all personal dignity" - 2020
- 1970: Dan Mitrione, an American torturer in Uruguay - 2019
- 1918: Boris Donskoy, Left SR assassin - 2018
- 1966: James French, fried - 2017
- 1916: Nazario Sauro, Italian patriot - 2016
- 1284: Tekuder, Mongol sultan - 2015
- 1792: William Winter, Elsdon Moor gibbet habitue - 2014
- 1949: John George Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer - 2013
- 1888: Hugh Mottram Brooks, for the Trunk Murder - 2011
- Themed Set: Branded - 2011
- 1858: James Seale, on the heath with Thomas Hardy - 2010
- 1922: Joseph O'Sullivan and Reginald Dunne, helping spark the Irish Civil War - 2009
- 1862: Nueces Massacre - 2008