In 2006 Craig Watkins became the first elected African-American district attorney in Texas history. He presides in Dallas County, where the D.A.'s office is known for its aggressive prosecution tactics. A former defense attorney, Watkins says the office has operated for too long on a "convict at all costs" philosophy. A string of wrongful convictions uncovered by the Texas Innocence Project in the months before Watkins was elected reinforces his point. Watkins ran on a reform platform and won a surprising victory against a more experienced Republican opponent.
After taking office, Watkins, 40, dismissed nine top-level prosecutors; 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 wrongful conviction. Senior Editor Radley Balko spoke with Watkins in March.
Q: You're critical of the mind-set of winning convictions at all costs. The legendary law-and-order Dallas prosecutor Henry Wade, who for 35 years held the job you now hold, embodied that philosophy. He's alleged even to have boasted about convicting innocent people—that putting an innocent man in jail proved his prowess as a prosecutor.
A: 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 clean out all the remnants of that older way of thinking.
Q: It's hard to imagine anyone opposed to seeking out and freeing the wrongfully convicted. Do you have critics?
A: We're actually encountering a lot of criticism right now.
Q: What arguments do they make?
A: 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 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 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.
Q: Dallas County has the highest exoneration rate in the country, in part because of a fluke: Dallas is one of the few places that preserved DNA evidence beginning in the 1980s. Do you think the system in Dallas was particularly broken, or would we be seeing similarly high numbers elsewhere had more evidence been preserved?
A: I think it's mostly because evidence was preserved in Dallas. We're just in a unique position where I can look at a case, test DNA evidence from that period, and be able to say without a doubt that a person is innocent.
Q: What specific steps did you take after winning office to address this issue?
A: The first thing we did was set up this Conviction Integrity Unit in the district attorney's office. We staffed it with two attorneys and two investigators and told them to look at some 400 cases for which there was DNA available to test, to see if there's reason to suspect a wrongful conviction. If they find cases, we'll collect the DNA and test it. If it shows the person in prison is innocent, we'll start proceedings for an exoneration.
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.
Q: Do you think you'll be re-elected?
A: 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.