Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Like Abraham, Craig Watkins asks if we want to destroy the righteous with the wicked

Published in 2009 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2009

When Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins is asked if he actually likes being interviewed, he takes a deep breath before answering.

“I do it at least once a day, so I’m used to it,” he says, while settling into a chair in his office in the Frank Crowley Courts Building. Then he sighs again. “A lot of people still have to get over the fact that I’m the DA. First of all, folks may be still dealing with the fact that I was a defense attorney, with the fact that I am a Democrat, with the fact that I’m an African-American. But I’ve seen that once people get past all those superficial things and really sit down and listen, then they’re all on board.”

The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and 60 Minutes are among those on board—at least enough to shine a national spotlight on Watkins as an agent of change. The first “change” usually reported is that he’s Texas’ first elected African-American district attorney. But the real change—the one that deserves headlines—is that this lead prosecutor for Texas’ second-largest jurisdiction has been busy setting innocent people free.

“More people see that this makes sense, even though it goes against the history of the office,” says Watkins about his Conviction Integrity Unit, which has assisted in the release of 20 men who were wrongly convicted under previous district attorneys. Watkins makes such examinations of the past a priority, opening his files to the Innocence Project of Texas in order to review scores of previously denied post-conviction requests for DNA testing. Initially that move sent up howls of protest, but as more exonerations made national news, critics relented.

“At this point [critics] have been somewhat silenced,” Watkins says. “Politically, you still have those folks in the other party who would like to bring those arguments back, but I think [their arguments] have fallen on deaf ears. They lose a lot of credibility when they try to bring the argument that it’s not the job of the DA to do this, but obviously it is.”

Fueled by success, Watkins has pushed his agenda in a bold new direction: Dallas DNA is a six-part television show that follows Watkins and his staff during exoneration proceedings. The show began airing at the end of April on the Investigation Discovery cable channel; its first episode covered Johnnie Lindsey, who was convicted in 1981 of rape and spent 26 years in prison before being proven innocent by DNA evidence. But even before the show aired, Watkins’ critics raised ethical questions about the exploitation of the victims of injustice.

For Watkins, the show demonstrates that his programs work to free innocent people, and it also brings transparency to the process while restoring credibility and confidence to his office. Furthermore, he says that in each of the convictions he’s worked to overturn, if a DNA match uncovers the real criminal, it’s been shown that the person had continued to commit crimes. “For those individuals who claim that I’m shining a disparaging light on this profession,” says Watkins, “I would question, ‘What light are you shining when you basically gave this criminal cover to continue to commit crimes?’ If you had done it correctly in the first place, then we wouldn’t have had all these victims as a result of your failure.”

It’s clear that Watkins is not just speaking to a broken criminal justice system and the complacency that has supported it; he’s also leveling criticism toward those who worked in the district attorney’s office before him. In fact, many of the cases being examined go back to the Henry Wade era. The legendary Wade (of Roe v. Wade) served as Dallas County district attorney for 36 years. When he retired in 1987, he left future district attorneys, like Watkins, untold numbers of bad convictions. Based mostly on DNA evidence, Dallas County has the dubious honor of exonerating more people in recent years than any other American county.

 

Guilty As Charged

Perhaps the most-cited observation about Watkins—that he’s politically ambitious—is the one he feels no need to refute. “I’ve always wanted to be in politics. I just look at politics as a vehicle to improve society. If we operate the system correctly, politics can be a useful tool,” he says.

To that end, Watkins says he intends to be active in the legislative process. He also believes previous district attorneys haven’t used their bully pulpit to its fullest advantage. With more attention on him and his office as a result of the exonerations, he admits that his voice can be quite powerful and has set about to put additional reforms in place.

“I foresee going to other issues outside of traditional criminal justice issues at some point because I think all roads lead to the criminal justice system. At some point we’re going to have to deal with education and how it’s funded, and a lot of other things that I think the DA should be a part of,” says Watkins.

He insists, however, that he’s not overstepping his bounds. “I’m not expanding anything. I think it’s always been the role of [previous district attorneys]; they just didn’t use it. I just think they didn’t have an understanding of what this job is. It’s more than just going to the courtroom, trying a case, and finding someone guilty. I intend to use every bit of [the office] to improve the lot of people here in Dallas County.”

Watkins is a Dallas native who refers to his early life as an “average middle-class existence.” He grew up playing Little League, attended Carter High School and looked forward to going to college. He intended to study engineering at Prairie View A&M University, but soon became consumed with political science.

“All of my professors had been a part of the civil rights movement. They had lived through it and been active in it. Everything we studied was based upon that,” says Watkins. “I found that I loved politics—the process, the history behind it, the personalities. Anybody, at least in this country, can really make a difference. Usually, those people who really add to our growth are those people you never expect. They’ve been on the outer fringes, a lot of folks never see them coming. Anyone can grow up to be an agent of change. The problem I had, in my thought process at that time, was that I thought that all the political battles, as they related to race and civil rights, had already been fought.”

But when he attended Texas Wesleyan University School of Law, he says, it became clear some battles still needed fighting. “Especially when it comes to fairness and protecting the Constitution. I’ve always had the inclination to be political, and I thought why not choose the district attorney’s office to begin fixing things?”

In 2002, Watkins made his first run for the office, but lost to the incumbent, Bill Hill. Four years later, he beat out prosecutor Toby Shook for the job. “My trek to this position may be a lot different than those who have traditionally held this job. The traditional person has been a prosecutor, a Republican, a white male. My lot in life tells me that a lot needs to be fixed, and I felt it took a different perspective to sit in this seat.”

He then looked outside his office—and Texas—for guidance on how to implement his ideas, spending time with the district attorneys of San Francisco, Brooklyn and Atlanta. Watkins says he also discovered programs that were working there that could also work in Dallas County.

“I didn’t reinvent the wheel,” he says. “The Conviction Integrity Unit was new, but some of the other things we’re doing or planning to do, I adopted them. But I still have some of those things that need to be put into place.” For example, he’d like to implement a program he calls “Back on Track,” in which some first-time felons (though not for anyone convicted of rape, murder or assault) enter a program to ensure that their re-entry into society is smooth enough that they aren’t tempted to repeat their crimes. Watkins insists that the “convict at all cost” and “tough on crime” philosophies of the past don’t work, and that his constituents would rather see their tax dollars put to use in a way that brings some kind of “return on their investment.”

 

Future Changes

Watkins has other programs he’d like to put into place, but laments that his present budget is too confining. So add the economy to his concerns. “The economy is an issue that needs to be addressed, because traditionally when the economy is failing we have more criminals. You wouldn’t think of the economy as a traditional criminal justice issue, but it is,” he says.

Add tourism, too. “When we’re talking about persuading businesses and corporations to move [to Dallas County],” he says, “the DA should always be part of that debate. We should be on the same page with the corporations because their concern is whether they can provide a safe environment for their employees. A lot of times those things are left to the mayor, but he needs support from all the major political offices.”

As Watkins continues to influence issues that he admits have been traditionally outside the district attorney’s office, it fuels speculation of his next political move. Although he’s given no clear indication on whether he’s considering statewide and national politics, he does acknowledge that a change of political office is certainly a possibility.

“I grew a lot from the first time I ran for DA and lost,” says Watkins. “I grew a lot when I won. I’ve still got some growing to do, but I’m forced to prepare for this national debate because people are focused on us. This office should be a model for the country of what it means to be a district attorney and what it means to dispense justice.”

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