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.