Criminal Justice

Is This America’s Best Prosecutor?

Meet Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins.

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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 thinking.

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?

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.

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36 responses to “Is This America’s Best Prosecutor?

  1. 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

    I’m impressed. I take back half of the bad things I’ve ever said about Texas. He knows it’s not a game, it’s peoples lives.

  2. Finally! One of the good guys. Does he have a friend in Chesapeake? Or would that be asking too much?

  3. Not so fast!

    Has anyone vetted his preacher?

  4. What a badass!

    You see this McCain? THIS is a Maverick!

  5. Does Mr. Watkins hold an elected or an appointed position?

  6. Watkins just about makes me want to move to Dallas and apply for an assistant prosecutor position.

  7. A politician with a conscience? Well guess there had to be one somewhere.

  8. ChicagoTom:

    The article says he was elected.

  9. Chicago Tom:

    Texas DA’s are elected, as are judges.

    Best

  10. What the hell, an article by Radley Balko that actually restores my faith in humanity??

  11. Good guy! Maybe if Obama gets in, he can make him Attorney General. Wonder how he would handle the kangaroo court of Guantanamo?

  12. shrike:

    One better: he’s got TAX PROBLEMS!!! Looks like he’s had some trouble with the IRS. Some cool guy at the Dallas Observer thought this was a bad thing. I say it only makes me want to like him more; too bad I’m a few hundred miles south.

  13. I am totally voting for this guy when he is up for reelection.

  14. As a retired Texas criminal defense attorney, I can say that Mr. Watkins’ election and his implementation of his philosophy in the Dallas D.A.’s Office is a 180 degree change of direction for Texas prosecutors. I hope that he succeeds and is re-elected for many years and that his projects in the area of “justice, not convictions” as the goal of every District Attorney’s Office are adopted and sincerely applied across the state of Texas and the nation. If he succeeds and his ideas take root and spread, he will have started something that will restore the faith of the everyday people of America in the judicial system. It’ll be interesting to see how he deals with the Kountry Klub Kids – the children of the rich and influential politicians and lawyers who commit vicious and brutal crimes. Good luck, Mr. Watkins!

  15. Hats off! Why every prosecutor in America isn’t
    following Watkins’s lead is beyond me. And it
    doesn’t end there: medical examiners, judges,
    and, obviously enough, law enforcement has to be subject to the harshest, most thorough review. Just hope the system doesn’t turn him.

  16. Texans got this one right! You have my blessings Mr. Watkins! You are what other attorneys should aspire to be.

    Texans, I apologize about my prior stereotyping. This one’s a keeper!

  17. Rather refreshing to read about a true officer of the court who understands his duty.

    -jcr

  18. Mr. Watkins is an example of what every politician, prosecutor, law enforcement officer, judge, congressman, legislator or elected official should be: A man who is aware that his duty is to uphold justice and to protect the innocent.

    I wish him luck.

  19. Is today April first?

  20. As the father of son wrongly convicted of murder in Colorado, I’ve become disillusioned with our justice system, despite a career that has included 23 years as a military pilot, time as a member of the FBI, and many years as a college professor. I can only hope that more DA’s come to so recognize their duty to truth and justice. For more information about my son’s case, which is on appeal, see http://bearingfalsewitness.com.

  21. One of the reasons that Watkins is encountering resistance to reversing bad convictions is that for most people, an accusation is enough. That is, they believe that anyone accused of a crime must be guilty of something.

  22. One of the reasons that Watkins is encountering resistance to reversing bad convictions is that for most people, an accusation is enough. That is, they believe that anyone accused of a crime must be guilty of something.

    Who are these people?

  23. It is interesting to note that Mr. Watkins says this of the Conviction Integrity Unit: “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.”

    I was involved in responding to the first 150 post-conviction DNA testing requests filed by defendants convicted in Dallas County. Of those 150 cases, more than half did not have evidence containing DNA and had NEVER had any evidence containing DNA. For that reason, the majority of DNA-testing requests filed were entirely frivolous.

    Regardless, prosecutors and the evidence storage lab spent many hours verifying there was no such evidence, to “ensure that justice is done,” as is ethically required of all Texas prosecutors. This is directly at odds with Mr. Watkins’s statement that each of the 400 DNA testing request cases actually had evidence containing DNA. While the stated purpose of reviewing old convictions is ethically admirable, his comment makes me concerned that Mr. Watkins may be “fudging” the numbers for political pruposes, or to create and fund jobs for friends.

    1. When a DA’s price files charges when ALL the evidence indicates that no crime has taken place, it is tantamount to collusion and being an accessory after the fact to the crime of false accusation. And when her witness tells others that she is going to discredit someone to cover up the truth of a phony lawsuit, that at least should merit investigation. And telling her to call the police when she testified in court that there was no outcry of rape, or any other offense, this casts doubt as to what her motives were. And when the grand jury is told that an “outcry”was made, when in fact , there was not, and no mention was made that this “victim” was going to receive an eviction notice on the day on the alleged offense, lied on her application, and then was caught in at least 3 in court, there is definitely amiss. And when a DA witnesses this perjury and takes no action, that is basically acting as an accessory to the crime after the fact, and by an officer of the court ,no less! Where a prosecutor goes forward with no evidence and a story by 2 women that is highly questionable at best, and yet observes a crime taking place in court and takes no action, that is malicious prosecution. Aiding and abetting a criminal by the DA s office should be prosecuted in the courts. And presenting false testimony to a grand jury, while concealing the real facts of a case, as happened in this case, should lead to criminal prosecution of that DA/ADA. Witnessing this taking place makes me wonder how many claims of innocence are valid. This is one district attorney to whom the title “Honorable” may actually apply. I will donate to any campaign Craig Watkins pursues.

  24. former Dallas prosecutor,

    By my reading, Watkins is saying that there were 400-some-odd cases in which DNA existed, not that there were 400 requests total.

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you (my knowledge of case reviews, etc. is woefully limited); are you saying there were fewer than 400 cases with extant DNA evidence?

  25. Yes, Jake, as of 2008 there have been a little over 400 requests for post-conviction DNA testing made in Dallas County since April 2001. Of those, more than half NEVER had any evidence containing biological material for DNA testing. Example: ex-husband has sex with ex-wife; she says it was rape, he says it was consentual. No evidence (“rape kit”) is taken because it is undisputed by ex-husband that sex occurred; consent is the only issue. Therefore, no DNA evidence ever existed. Nevertheless, the ex-husband files a request for post-conviction DNA testing, and the DA’s Office checked to be sure there was no evidence. Now, the CIU is doing it again.

  26. it’s really encouraging that he is reforming the attitude of the DA’s office, and unfortunate that something relatively unequivocal like DNA evidence doesn’t always exist in cases, isn’t always pertinent, or(especially) isn’t always stored.

    That having been said, careful Balko! Stay objective, the guy is still a politician, and ‘former Dallas prosecutor’ alleges possible unethical behavior within the context of the reviews. Obviously this reform is a political winner, given the publicity the exonorations garnered and the shifting political climate in the US (away from ‘tough on crime’ trumping fairness and sometimes efficacy, etc), despite Watkins’ transparent ‘aw shucks’ answer when Balko asked him about re-election. We wouldn’t want to distort our view with hero-worship, although Balko-worship doesn’t seem to have had any negative effect on his work so far.

    All that said, for now I see no reason not to wholeheartedly support Watkins in the direction he’s leading the Dallas DA’s office. Thanks and good luck to him.

  27. Well said..!!
    Shelly Smith

  28. found your site on del.icio.us today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later ..

  29. Thankfully I didn’t vote for watkins. In fact the only things that I would vote for him to do is shoveling animal waste. I am not Democratic or Republican or Liberal because all politicians are arrogant pigs. Also I don’t for anyone that I don’t personally for 20 plus year. So I avoid all politicians because I don’t want to be contaminated by associating with scum. I consider all politicians scum bags. also I never have cared what happens to politicians because anything bad I actually have to laugh. I am a believer of no matter whatever bad happens to a politician they must have deserved it and so what life goes on. so deal with and move on. I have no sympathy for any politician. Hopefully the citizens of Dallas county will wise up and vote for a different person next time. So to Mr. Craig Watkin no matter what you do no one I will work for will ever tell me what party I can attend because if they do I will tell them to shut their mouths because I go where I feel like it and if that offends anyone because they are either republican, democrat, liberal I will be there for the fun and if it offends anyone tough not my problem.

  30. “We’ve stripped away protections for the accused.”

    This isn’t true. In fact it seems to me juries grant prosecutors excessive and inapppropriate benefit of the doubt because they suspect they aren’t being shown all the relevant evidence.

    Great story, wish it was more common.

  31. found your own site upon del.icio.us these days and also actually liked it.. i added this and also will become returning to check it out more later ..

  32. Have you thought about adding some videos to the article? I think it might enhance everyone’s understanding

  33. It is good to see that we now have a DA who is interested in justice , first, and foremost, and furthering his career as a secondary m
    Consideration.secondarily. After what I’ve seen of the criminal justice system in Texas, I can attest to the corrupt nature in prosecuting people with no regard for the truth. We need men like him in Washington, D.C. as he brings a kind of integrity to the table that seems in short supply in our nation’s Capitol. And as a descendant of a family that settled in the D.C. Of Foggy Bottom as early as 1750, I have a personal stake in the area.

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