Criminal Justice

More Prosecutors Like Craig Watkins, Please

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Mississippi's Forrest Allgood edged out U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan in the "Worst Prosecutor of 2007" poll I put up up at TheAgitator.com earlier this week.

But what about the good prosecutors?

Here's one very good one: Dallas County, Texas District Attorney Craig Watkins.

Last year, Watkins took the reins of an office that had long had been soiled by legendary lawman Henry Wade, hero to law-and-order, James Q. Wilson-types throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Wade took a strident, string-em-up, conviction-at-all-costs approach to law enforcement. When he retired in 1986, the Dallas Morning News released a memo Wade's office issued to city attorneys instructing them, "Do not take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated," when it comes to jury selection. The memo was first issued in the 1960s, but still circulated as late as 1976.

The man who now inhabits Wade's old office couldn't be a starker contrast. Watkins made history last year as Dallas' first black district attorney, and immediately went about undoing the remnants of Wade's legacy.

After his election, Watkins instituted significant reforms to the way Dallas fights and prosecutes crime, including major changes to the way police conduct lineups and interrogate suspects. He stopped the inexplicable tradition of destroying death penalty files after conviction, which is often a barrier to DNA-based innocence claims down the line. He fired overly aggressive subordinates, and caused still more to resign in protest or frustration.

But most notably, Watkins not only hasn't fought innocence and wrongful conviction claims, he's been seeking them out, correctly understanding that a prosecutor's job isn't to see how many people he can throw in prison, it's to work toward the fair administration of justice.

Watkins set up his own task force to work with the Texas Innocence Project to investigate wrongful conviction claims. His is the only DA's office in the country to work directly with an Innocence Project chapter. Since 2001, 13 people in Dallas County alone have been exonerated and released from prison after DNA testing. Watkins' task force will now look at 350 more cases. Dallas now has the highest exoneration rate in the country, and trails only New York and L.A. in total exonerations. Watkins' efforts means those numbers are only likely to grow.

Watkins' efforts have also aided by an odd anomaly: Because Dallas has long outsourced most of its lab work, it's one of the few jurisdictions in the country where biological evidence has been preserved (despite the best efforts of the city's prosecutors over the years). So testable DNA evidence exists for cases from well before DNA technology came into being. (Another argument for using multiple, independent labs in forensics testing.) Consequently, Watkins and the Texas Innocence Project can go back much further to investigate innocence claims than other jurisdictions.

So in the one county in America that has preserved DNA evidence going back to the 1980s, and in one of only a few where the district attorney's office is an asset to innocence claims instead of a roadblock, we're seeing much, much higher exoneration rates than we're seeing in the rest of the country. I'm going to go out on a limb, here, and guess that this isn't mere coincidence.

Watkins deserves a ton of credit for what he's done in Dallas. He's not only correcting the mistakes of his predecessors, he's putting in institutional reforms to cut down on mistakes in the future. We need more prosecutors like him.

Info above pulled from NY Times profile of Watkins here; NPR profile and interview here; and Texas Observer piece on Watkins here.

NOTE: Two grammatical fixes made to above post. Thanks to commenters for pointing them out. And in the several months I've been following Watkins, two more people have been exonerated in Dallas. So the number's now 15, not 13.

NEXT: Death by Drug War

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  1. A prosecutor who isn’t out to fuck harmless people and advance his career? I don’t believe it. What’s his angle?

  2. “But most notably, Watkins not only hasn’t fought innocence and wrongful conviction claims, he’s been seeking them out, correctly understanding that a prosecutor’s job isn’t to see how many people he can throw in prison, it’s to work toward the fair administration of justice.”

    Fantastic. This should be the norm. More folks should realize that the conviction or bullying of the innocent, especially considering the glaring disparity between most individual’s resources and the overbearing power of the state apparatus brought to bear against defendants, is a crime in and of itself to be avoided.

  3. Watkins is a moral man and a credit to his office. It is a damned shame that he is the exception, not the norm.

  4. “I’m going to go out on a limb, here, and guess that this isn’t mere coincidence.”

    I agree, it probably isn’t a coincidence. In a few decades we will probably have other jurisdictions able to test DNA from way back in the Ninety’s and the Zero’s. Not that we shouldn’t be doing more of that NOW so innocent people don’t get raped so that prosecutors who do not have the last name Watkins can look good.

  5. An odd contrast to the recent post on how Dallas isn’t taking advantage of the new misdemeanor option for marijuana conviction. I guess he’s been busy on other things.

  6. Great post, Radley, especially the link to the “worst prosecutors” list. But it’s “reins,” not “reigns,” which is a verb.

  7. and is second only to New York and L.A. in total exonerations.

    Second to which one? 😉

    Seriously though, wouldn’t it be nice to believe that prosecutors were more concerned with fair trials than more trials? I hope this guy’s values are contagious.

  8. I heard Watson when he was interviewed on NPR and was frankly amazed that I was hearing those words come out of a prosecutor’s mouth. I came away very impressed (and more than a little shocked). Hopefully it’s the start of a trend, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Dose anyone know how common it is to have elected DAs instead of appointed? Do the two scenarios lead to different types of emphasis and priorities? AFAIK, I’ve only lived in places where it was an appointed position.

  9. R C Dean —

    Even reasonable people sometimes get silly when drugs or sex (or video games, or the Internet) are introduced into the conversation.

  10. RC & LMNOP,

    The DA doesn’t decided whether to cite (ticket) someone with a doobie or to haul his ass to the clink- the cops do that.

    Watkins could probably encourage the cops to take advantage of the new law, but it’s not his call.

  11. Scooby —

    Generally true, but the skippy on the misdemeanor citation for pot thing is that its passage was requested by a DA’s office (Austin, if I’m not mistaken). Since Dallas is undoubtedly facing some of the similar problems that Austin is (jail overcrowding, tying up police with minor infractions, etc.), some folks (e.g. R C Dean) are wondering why the Dallas office did not also embrace the opportunity, especially since the fellow seems so reasonable…uncharacteristically so, for a person in his position.

    I’m merely suggesting that even reasonable people sometimes have silly hangups, perhaps due to past experiences or incomplete information. This tends to be especially true with the big three (sex, drugs, media). This eminently fine Dallas DA may be one of those reasonable people who just has an unreasonable view of drug law, or like RCD pointed out, maybe he just has better things to do at the moment.

  12. Because Dallas has long outsourced most of its lab work, it’s one of the few jurisdictions in the country where biological evidence has been preserved (despite the best efforts of the city’s prosecutors over the years

    Could someone with some prosecutorial background give me one good reason why a prosecutors office wouldn’t want to preserve such evidence? And I’m really looking for an honest answer.

  13. two more people have been exonerated in Dalls.

    ..strikes again!

  14. Could someone with some prosecutorial background give me one good reason why a prosecutors office wouldn’t want to preserve such evidence? And I’m really looking for an honest answer.

    It does cost money to properly store evidence for decades in a climate-controlled, secure, organized fashion. Particularly if (before DNA) a simple bloodstain wasn’t that meaningful.

  15. It does cost money to properly store evidence for decades in a climate-controlled, secure, organized fashion. Particularly if (before DNA) a simple bloodstain wasn’t that meaningful.

    I’m guessing that’s not the reason. It *could* be the reason, but I’m guessing it’s not.

    My guess is this:

    Prosecutors, even good ones are collectively concerned that evidence lying around for decades can be “worried” to death ad-nauseum. We know that a clever lawyer can convince people that a photograph of the perp committing his crime is not what we think it is. Ie, doubt can be interjected into almost anything using a barrage of arguments, is-it-remotely-possible speculation and cleverly cobbled together “expert” rebuttal testimony.

    I can see a situation where even a reasonable prosecutor doesn’t want long-closed cases to be continuosly opened and scrutinized.

    I don’t agree with it, but I can see how it might be tempting to eliminate the option of having every case- even the slam-dunks- continuously opened and reopened.

  16. doubt can be interjected into almost anything using a barrage of arguments, is-it-remotely-possible speculation and cleverly cobbled together “expert” rebuttal testimony.

    AKA the Chewbacca Defense

  17. How about the one like me who were arrested for DWI they do not save the breathilizer test they some how altered my video no audio either but yet I now have to pay a attorney to prove my innocents I am still waiting to go to trial and it has been just over a year

  18. de stijl:

    “Dose anyone know how common it is to have elected DAs instead of appointed? Do the two scenarios lead to different types of emphasis and priorities? AFAIK, I’ve only lived in places where it was an appointed position.”

    In many states, the county prosecutor is an elected position. In large cities, it’s often a stepping stone to statewide office or DC. One of my US senators used to be my county prosecutor, and was state auditor in the interim.

  19. This was last post read before returning to homepage. There I found a brand new story about a man released after serving 26 years of a sentence for rape. DNA evidence exonerated him. This in Dallas County, Texas. Is that number 16?

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