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Watkins: Initially, their argument was that it’s not the role of a prosecutor to look for bad convictions—that that’s the role of a defense attorney. But that didn’t work very well for them. And it’s wrong. Both the criminal code of the state of Texas and the American Bar Association’s code clearly state that the job of a prosecutor is to seek justice. That means if a person is guilty, you try to convict him. If he’s not, you don’t. And if you have reason to believe someone has been wrongly convicted, you have a responsibility to fix that.
Their new argument is, “Is this cost effective?” Is this unit we’ve created a net benefit for Dallas County? I guess my response to that is that if we find even one more person who has been wrongly convicted, then yes, it is cost effective. So I think their arguments are off base. And they’re going to have a hard time convincing the public that what we’re doing isn’t necessary.
reason: Dallas County has the highest exoneration rate in the country. That’s in part because of a fluke. In the 1980s, the county started sending biological evidence to a private lab to be tested. That lab kept all of the evidence pretty well preserved, enabling it to be used in DNA testing today. So Dallas is one of the few places in the country where evidence from that era can still be tested. Do you think the system in Dallas was particularly corrupt or broken to cause all of these wrongful convictions, or would we be seeing the high numbers of exonerations we’re seeing in Dallas all over the country if similar efforts had been made to preserve evidence in other places?
Watkins: I think it’s mostly because evidence was preserved in Dallas. I don’t think there was anything unique about the way Dallas was prosecuting crimes. It’s unfortunate that other places didn’t preserve evidence, too. We’re just in a unique position where I can look at a case, test DNA evidence from that period, and say without a doubt that a person is innocent. They can’t do that in other places. But that doesn’t mean other places don’t have the same problems Dallas had.
reason: Your approach to your job is unique
enough that it’s earned you some headlines. What do you think about
the way we look at the role of a prosecutor today? Are the
incentives too geared toward rolling up convictions?
Watkins: Well we’ve obviously had this political mantra over the last 30 years about “getting tough on crime.” And I think too often, buried in that mantra is the implication that there’s no room for fair justice. We’ve stripped away protections for the accused. And as a result, I think many prosecutors went into a case with blinders on—like everyone was guilty. The more convictions you won, the better your chances to get re-elected or to move on to higher office. We’re now seeing the fallout from that mentality. Hopefully, the problems we’re now encountering will help it to change.
reason: What reforms or checks should DA’s offices put in place to guard against wrongful convictions?
Watkins: Well you know police departments file
cases with us. We need to guard against being a rubber stamp for
every case the police department sends our way. We need to be more
skeptical. We also need to train prosecutors to think about their
jobs in a different way. We shouldn’t be judging young prosecutors
by how many convictions they win, or by how many people they put in
jail. I’d also like to see a change in the way appellate courts
look at these cases. Appellate courts are often too reluctant to
second-guess a jury. But if there’s evidence there that makes you
question whether the jury got it right, I think they need to be
more willing to open their minds and take that second look.
reason: But it’s established law in most places that appellate courts give considerable deference to the jury’s verdict. When they do intervene, it’s generally on procedural issues. They tend to pass on actually reviewing the evidence in a case. Seems like a tall order to change that.
Watkins: I think the mere fact that we’ve had so many exonerations ought to move them to take a closer look at the evidence in criminal cases. You’re right that cases are generally appealed on technical issues. But take eyewitness identification. It’s been proven time and time again in studies that eyewitness identification is extremely unreliable. Yet police, prosecutors, and juries still tend to put a lot of faith in them. And these same studies show there are some basic steps you can take make eyewitness identifications more reliable, but that also would result in fewer identifications, and fewer prosecutions. But if there are procedures available to increase the validity of a form of evidence, and police and prosecutors aren’t using it, then they’re deliberately increasing the chances of a wrongful conviction in order to get more convictions. And defendants aren’t getting a fair trial. And I think that’s something the appellate courts ought to look at.
You also have to look at changes in technology. We have new
methods and procedures that are better and more reliable than the
old way of doing things. But the law tends to be static. If we’re
consciously not using the methods proven to be more effective and
more reliable, we’re not giving defendants the fairest possible
trial. Appellate courts should be looking at that, too.
reason: Given the novel approach you’ve taken to the job, what are your prospects for getting reelected?
Watkins: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t
think about it all that much. I go into my job looking to make sure
we administer justice in a fair way. I hope my record will speak
for itself. I hope people will see that we take a balanced
approach, here. We convict the guilty, and we free the innocent.
I’d hope that that’s what people would ask from a district
attorney, and from a fair criminal justice system.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason.