In 2006, Craig Watkins became the first African-American elected district attorney of any county in Texas history. More interestingly, the 40-year-old Watkins was elected in Dallas County, where the DA’s office has long been known for its aggressive prosecution tactics. A former defense attorney, Watkins says the Dallas DA’s office has for too long adopted a damaging “convict at all costs” philosophy, an argument bolstered by a string of wrongful convictions uncovered by the Texas Innocence Project in the months before he was elected. Watkins ran on a reform platform, and pulled out a surprising victory against a more experienced Republican opponent.
After taking office, Watkins dismissed nine top-level prosecutors in the office. Nine others left voluntarily. He established a “Conviction Integrity Unit” to ensure proper prosecutorial procedures, and began working with the Texas Innocence Project to find other cases of possible wrongful conviction. reason Senior Editor Radley Balko recently interviewed Watkins by phone.
reason: What inspired you to not only not put up obstacles to a group like the Texas Innocence Project, but to actually work with them proactively to seek out wrongful convictions in Dallas?
Watkins: We had had several exonerations here in Dallas County before I was elected. So as a result of that, we felt it was something we needed to look into, to see if anyone else we may have prosecuted in this county was wrongfully convicted. We take seriously our charge by the code of criminal procedure to “seek justice.” That’s one our responsibilities, to make sure innocent folks aren’t convicted. And we find they are or have been, we have to do everything we can to rectify the problem.
reason: How should a prosecutor balance his time and resources between prosecuting present-day cases and looking for cases of wrongful conviction?
Watkins: Well, before we got here, there was no one working on innocence cases. So there was no balance, because no one was doing it. We just decided to start a whole new section of the office dedicated solely to innocence. And they’re not only looking for bad convictions, they’re also looking at what policies and procedures we can put in place to keep them from happening in the future. So we aren’t really taking time away from prosecutions. We’ve just added positions that didn’t exist before.
reason: What specific steps did you take after winning office to address this issue?
Watkins: The first thing we did was set up this “Conviction Integrity Unit” in the district attorneys office. We immediately staffed it with two attorneys and two investigators, and told them to look at 400-some-odd cases for which there was DNA available to test. So their responsibility right now is to look through those 400 cases to see if there’s reason to suspect a wrongful conviction. If they find cases, we’ll then collect the DNA and test it. If it shows the person in prison is innocent, we’ll start proceedings for an exoneration.
In addition to that, the unit has the responsibility of training the younger lawyers here in the office on the ethical side of a prosecutor’s job—things like the importance of properly dealing with exculpatory evidence. And we intend to have this section here in this office forever. This is not a pilot program. It’s something I’d like to see spread across the country—where DAs will actively seek out convictions that were obtained unfairly.
reason: What are some common stakes you’re seeing repeated in these innocence cases? Do they tend to be willful mistakes, or more due to negligence?
Watkins: It’s a combination of things. Negligence, prosecutorial misconduct, faulty witness identification. It’s just been a mindset of “conviction at all costs” around here. So we changed that philosophy. We aren’t here to rack up convictions. We’re here to seek justice. Once we can get over that win at all costs mentality, I think we’ll see fewer and fewer of these wrongful convictions.
reason: You talk about the mindset of winning convictions at all costs. The legendary law-and-order Dallas prosecutor Henry Wade, who held the job you now hold for many, many years, embodied that philosophy. He’s known to have actually boasted about convicting innocent people—that convincing a jury to put an innocent man in jail proved his prowess as a prosecutor.
Watkins: Oh yeah, it was a badge of honor at
the time—to knowingly convict someone that wasn’t guilty. It’s
widely known among defense attorneys and prosecutors from that era.
We had to come in clean out all the remnants of that older way of
reason: It’s hard to imagine anyone opposing what you’re doing—seeking out and freeing the wrongfully convicted. Do you have critics?
Watkins: We’re encountering a lot of criticism right now. I think a lot of it is motivated by political party. The Republicans are losing power in Dallas County, and they’re trying to regain it. So they’re doing whatever they can, even making the political mistake of attacking the work we’re doing on wrongful convictions.
reason: What possible arguments could they make against freeing innocent people?