New Prosecutor Revisits Justice in Dallas

"We're being sure we get the right person going to jail," says Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, the first black district attorney in Texas. (By Sylvia Moreno -- The Washington Post)
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007

DALLAS -- Craig Watkins is still settling into his 11th-floor office overlooking the city skyline, hanging up pictures, arranging his plaques -- and revolutionizing the criminal justice system he oversees.

Sworn in as Dallas County district attorney on Jan. 1 -- he is the first elected black district attorney in Texas -- Watkins fired or accepted the resignations of almost two dozen high-level white prosecutors and began hiring minorities and women.

And in an unprecedented act for any jurisdiction in the nation, he announced he would allow the Texas affiliate of the Innocence Project to review hundreds of Dallas County cases dating back to 1970 to decide whether DNA tests should be conducted to validate past convictions. At 12 in the past five years, Dallas has more post-conviction DNA exonerations than any county in the nation and more than at least two states. A 13th exoneration, of a Dallas County man, is expected to be announced within days.

By his own estimate, Watkins should not be occupying what he calls a "ten-gallon-hat, cowboy-boot-wearing, dip-chewin', lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key" post in the ninth-largest city in the country.

He's black, he's a Democrat, he's young, he was a defense lawyer with an office in a southside neighborhood, and he has no prosecutorial experience -- unless he counts a year-long internship handling misdemeanors in the city prosecutor's office. His two previous applications to work as an assistant district attorney in Dallas County were rejected, in fact, by an office in which a prosecutor once produced a manual on how to exclude minorities from Texas juries.

In November, Watkins, 39, was elected as part of a Democratic sweep in Dallas in which the party took 42 judgeships and six other countywide offices. He is the first Democratic district attorney in 20 years. During the campaign he promised to be "smart on crime," not just tough on crime; to ask for the death penalty when appropriate but also to advocate for better rehabilitation programs and post-release support services for ex-convicts.

"You know what people call it? 'Hug-a-thug,' " said Watkins, imposing at 6 feet 5 yet soft-spoken, as he sat in his office after his latest "guest of honor" appearance, at a local high school's Black History Month assembly. "People say I'll coddle these criminals. But it's not about coddling criminals; it's about being smart."

That, he believes, means ensuring that the right people are behind bars.

Post-conviction DNA analysis in certain cases has been allowed in Texas since 2001. Since then, 354 people convicted in Dallas County -- most were in prison, but some were on parole or probation or were done with their sentences -- have asked for the DNA testing. The Dallas district attorney's office agreed to 19 requests; trial judges, who reviewed the district attorney's recommendations, ultimately granted the requests of 34 people.

That, said Watkins, tells him a "get a conviction at all costs" approach "utterly failed us."

"The question becomes: Do you stand in the way of justice or do you be the wind behind it to make sure that justice gets done?" Watkins said. "We're not being soft on crime. We're being sure we get the right person going to jail."

Most of the exonerations date to cases tried in the 1980s under Dallas's legendary law-and-order district attorney, Henry Wade. Attempts to reach Watkins's predecessor, Bill Hill, were unsuccessful.

This time, the screenings of cases to determine whether they are eligible for post-conviction DNA testing will be done by Texas Weslayan University School of Law students. They will work under Mike Ware, an adjunct law professor and board member of the Innocence Project of Texas, who believes that prosecutors and judges may have previously taken an overly stringent view of the Texas statute and denied testing that might have led to exoneration.

"I have to respect [Watkins's] willingness to certainly take his oath of office to heart and be dedicated to true justice, which is what his oath of office requires," Ware said.


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