Dallas County (Tex.) District Attorney Craig Watkins was defeated in his bid for reelection Tuesday night.
Watkins, the first black DA in Texas history, was a trailblazing prosecutor who set up the country’s first “conviction integrity unit,” a team of prosecutors whom Watkins specifically tasked with seeking out and overturning wrongful convictions.
I interviewed Watkins several years ago. An excerpt:
What are some common [mistakes] 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.
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.
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.
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.
Dallas County today has exonerated more people than any other county in the country. In fact, more have been exonerated there than in all but a few states. That’s in part due to a historical fluke. Dallas began sending biological evidence to a private lab in the 1980s. That meant there was DNA to sample in cases going back to well before DNA testing became available. It’s also because of the county’s history of aggressive prosecutors. But it’s also because of Watkins and his willingness to actually seek out injustices and fix them.
The first article linked in this post indicates that Watkins found himself embroiled in some ethical scandals and made some enemies above and beyond people who weren’t happy with what he was doing with respect to wrongful convictions. That’s unfortunate. I don’t know enough about those issues to have an opinion on them. But one thing is for sure: Watkins single-handedly changed the debate about wrongful convictions. He showed that wrongful convictions aren’t rare and aren’t necessarily the product of rogue cops or prosecutors. To find wrongful convictions, we only need public officials who are willing to look for them.