The Best Prosecutor of 2007

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

So Mississippi’s Forrest Allgood edged out U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan in the "Worst Prosecutor of 2007" poll.

But what about the good prosecutors?

Here’s one very good one: Dallas County, Texas District Attorney Craig Watkins.

Last year, Watkins took the reins of an office that had long had been soiled by legendary lawman Henry Wade, hero to law-and-order, James Q. Wilson-types throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Wade took a strident, string-em-up, conviction-at-all-costs approach to law enforcement.  When he retired in 1986, the Dallas Morning News released a memo Wade’s office issued to city attorneys instructing them,  "Do not take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated," when it comes to jury selection.  The memo was first issued in the 1960s, but still circulated as late as 1976.

The man who now inhabits Wade’s old office couldn’t be a starker contrast. Watkins made history last year as Dallas’ first black district attorney, and immediately went about undoing the remnants of Wade’s legacy.

After his election, Watkins instituted significant reforms to the way Dallas fights and prosecutes crime, including major changes to the way police conduct lineups and interrogate suspects. He stopped the inexplicable tradition of destroying death penalty files after conviction, which is often a barrier to DNA-based innocence claims down the line. He fired overly aggressive subordinates, and caused still more to resign in protest or frustration.

But most notably, Watkins not only hasn’t fought innocence and wrongful conviction claims, he’s been seeking them out, correctly understanding that a prosecutor’s job isn’t to see how many people he can throw in prison, it’s to work toward the fair administration of justice.

Watkins set up his own task force to work with the Texas Innocence Project to investigate wrongful conviction claims. His is the only DA’s office in the country to work directly with an Innocence Project chapter. Since 2001, 13 15 people in Dallas County alone have been exonerated and released from prison after DNA testing. Watkins’ task force will now look at 350 more cases. Dallas now has the highest exoneration rate in the country, and trails only New York and L.A. in total exonerations. Watkins’ efforts means those numbers are only likely to grow.

Watkins’ efforts have also aided by an odd anomaly: Because Dallas has long outsourced most of its lab work, it’s one of the few jurisdictions in the country where biological evidence has been preserved (despite the best efforts of the city’s prosecutors over the years). So testable DNA evidence exists for cases from well before DNA technology came into being. (Another argument for using multiple, independent labs in forensic testing.) Consequently, Watkins and the Texas Innocence Project can go back much further to investigate innocence claims than other jurisdictions.

So in the one county in America that has preserved DNA evidence going back to the 1980s, and in one of only a few where the district attorney’s office is an asset to innocence claims instead of a roadblock, we’re seeing much, much higher exoneration rates than we’re seeing in the rest of the country. I’m going to go out on a limb, here, and guess that this isn’t mere coincidence.

Watkins deserves a ton of credit for what he’s done in Dallas. He’s not only correcting the mistakes of his predecessors, he’s putting in institutional reforms to cut down on mistakes in the future. We need more prosecutors like him.

Info above pulled from NY Times profile of Watkins here; NPR profile and interview here; and Texas Observer piece on Watkins here.

NOTE: The AP reports today that there’s been another exoneration in Dallas County. There was one more that escaped my attention in the months I’ve been following Watkins. So the number’s now 15, not 13.

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8 Responses to “The Best Prosecutor of 2007”

  1. #1 |  mike | 

    Wait, good news about a prosecutor? Who are you, and what have you done with our humble Agitator?

    Seriously, though, you should make this a weekly feature to combat the inevitable depression many of us get from reading your work on a regular basis. Not sure how common it is to find someone in government fighting for the principles we all hold dear. Maybe you’ll have to make it a monthly feature.

  2. #2 |  doggedpursuit | 

    Thanks for posting this.

    Displaying this type of moral courage in the Criminal Justice system is far too rare, and Watkins deserves full recognition and support for his efforts. He is going to need it.

    Misconduct by police and prosecutors has become commonplace, and they are almost never held accountable for their actions. Too many careers have been built on voter support resulting from high conviction rates where many of those convicted are innocent of the charges. It seems to have become more about projecting an image than achieving justice.

    It is also important to remember that nearly every time an innocent person is wrongfully convicted, the guilty party goes free. So there is a compound benefit to correcting this problem.

  3. #3 |  Persona non grata | 

    Way to go DA Watkins.

    Can we clone him?

  4. #4 |  Chris Grieb | 

    Gee! Amazing A DA who remembers his oath is do justice not convict people. Wonders will never cease.

  5. #5 |  Kristen | 

    The release of the guy you talked about in your update was in the Express today. I came around to see if you mentioned him, et voila!

    Good job, DA Watkins. We need many more like you.

  6. #6 |  JAMES | 

    You are doing a great job, its to bad they don’t have someone in Denton county that could go back to the 40′s & 50′s and see what happened to poor young boys.
    Our prayers are with you

  7. #7 |  The Agitator » Blog Archive » Prosecutor Misconduct in Dallas | 

    [...] would be the same Dallas County where the current District Attorney, the refreshing Craig Watkins, has said prosecutors used to wear wrongful convictions “like a badge of [...]

  8. #8 |  Best Of | Free The Animal | 

    [...] sure and give Radley Balko's accounts of the best prosecutor and best cop a serious look. God knows I couldn't get within a city block of either of those [...]

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