Dallas County’s First African-American District Attorney, Craig Watkins, Named Texan of the Year

December 26, 2008

craig-watkins-588.jpgJan.1, 2007, the day Craig Watkins was sworn in as Dallas’ first African-American district attorney, marked a seismic shift in local politics. Perhaps even more significant than the election of Ron Kirk, our first black mayor, Mr. Watkins’ first two years in office illustrate a commitment to just and effective enforcement of the law; citizens expect as much and rightly so.

Mr. Watkins has taken his charge one step further – an equal commitment to justice. The Dallas D.A.’s office is as committed to seeing the innocent go free as it is in seeing the guilty prosecuted – and Mr. Watkins has redoubled those efforts in 2008.
For that reason, Craig Watkins is my nominee for Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year.
To date, 19 men, unfairly prosecuted and falsely imprisoned, have had their Dallas County convictions overturned through DNA technology that was unavailable at the time of prosecution. Most of them were found guilty because of faulty eyewitness testimony. But all were innocent.
These were men who lost not just years of their lives but also lost family members, friends and the opportunity to contribute positively to our society. And chances are that all might have remained in prison if it had not been for the zealous commitment of Mr. Watkins.
Mr. Watkins has not randomly run across these victims of the criminal justice system, but as a result of his decision to partner with the Innocence Project of Texas and review more than 350 questionable cases.
These exonerations wouldn’t be possible were it not for the fact that the Dallas County District Attorney’s office has kept forensic evidence longer than any other county in the state. Nonetheless, it was Mr. Watkins’ fervor to make sure prison is reserved only for criminals that jumpstarted this process and sustained its momentum.
What is particularly courageous – as well as ironic – is that in pursuing the liberation of these men, Mr. Watkins also has had to take on the formidable legend of Henry Wade, the Dallas County district attorney for 36 years. Mr. Wade prosecuted Jack Ruby for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy. He is the Wade referred to in the Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade.
Mr. Wade and his team of prosecutors boasted a 90 percent conviction rate and, in his last 20 years in office, won 165,000 cases – including some of those 19 since-exonerated men. “There was a cowboy kind of mentality, and the reality is that kind of approach is archaic, racist, elitist and arrogant,” said Mr. Watkins.
But the irony is that it was the Wade administration that made the decision to save the biological evidence that has led to many of the recent exonerations.
The significance of Mr. Watkins’ work should ultimately lead to new legislation. We must find ways to adequately compensate those who have been victimized by the criminal justice system. Both their compensation and a gubernatorial pardon should be immediate upon release.
As someone whose family has suffered the loss of a loved one through violence, I know what it is like to want the perpetrator brought to justice. But my family and I want the right person prosecuted and punished. We are all ill-served otherwise.
Mr. Watkins understands this and has taken the right step by creating the Convictions Integrity Unit to ensure proper prosecutorial procedures. We may well be getting to the point in Dallas County when there will be little doubt that our trials are fair. And that’s the work of Craig Watkins.
Whatever else positive he does during his term, whether or not he wins re-election, Mr. Watkins has built a prosecutor’s office of which we can all be proud.
Source: Dallas Morning News

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