A prosecutor defending the innocent
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Craig Watkins wants to expose the weaknesses of criminal justice, right the wrongs of Dallas County's justice system. He wants to be a voice speaking out for the wrongfully convicted.
And he is the district attorney of Dallas County.
Watkins has made waves since he took office. When he was elected in November 2006, he had never worked as a prosecutor. He was the first Democrat to head the DA's office in 20 years. And he is the first African-American district attorney in Texas.
Watkins, who just turned 40, turned even more heads in February, when he announced the DA's office would open courthouse files to the Innocence Project of Texas. A group of law students will comb through more than 400 criminal cases, looking for convictions that deserve a second look -- cases that, with DNA testing, might be overturned.
This is not the normal work of a district attorney. The announcement grabbed national headlines. Texas Monthly described it as being "like Richard Nixon inviting Woodward and Bernstein to the White House to go through some unreleased tapes." But Watkins, a Dallas native, has set out to change the way justice is delivered in Dallas County.
"I've seen the failures of the criminal justice system up close," Watkins says. "Being an African-American and an attorney, I got to see that."
Watkins hired Terri Moore as his second-in-command; Moore, a prosecutor and trial lawyer who made a name for herself in the Tarrant County DA's office, is the one who suggested DNA testing. And Watkins hired Fort Worth criminal defense attorney Mike Ware to head the new Conviction Integrity Unit, designed to investigate cases with DNA evidence.
Watkins, who believes in the death penalty, says he isn't against prosecuting the guilty. He just doesn't want to prosecute people who aren't guilty. To Watkins, the district attorney's job is not to prosecute indiscriminately but to get it right.
"A lot of people are surprised that a district attorney would be concerned with this whole thing of innocence," he says. "But I'm surprised that they think that. ... what we're doing is really what a DA should do."
Other counties are keeping an eye on Dallas County, watching to see whether this new approach makes a difference. Just this month, Houston's Harris County announced a partnership with the Innocence Project of Texas, examining 180 cases that have questionable crime lab work.
If Watkins' philosophy spreads, Texas justice may never be the same.