DNA Exoneration: Too Real for Reality TV?

One of Governing's Public Officials of the Year 2008 was Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. In fact, he was on the cover of our November ...
by | April 17, 2009



Cover One of Governing's Public Officials of the Year 2008 was Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. In fact, he was on the cover of our November issue.

We recognized him for his brave step to use DNA evidence to ensure that the criminals in the county's custody were rightfully behind bars. Since Watkins began reviewing case files in spring 2007, Dallas County has freed or exonerated 10 inmates who had been wrongfully imprisoned.

Interesting, right? Well, the Discovery Channel thinks so. Investigation Discovery, one of the cable network's new channels, is launching a reality TV show that focuses on Watkins' work.

Dallas DNA will follow prisoners as they go through the exoneration process. The first episode features the September exoneration of Johnnie Lindsey, 56, who was convicted in a 1981 rape case and spent 26 years in prison, according to USA Today.

Not surprisingly, the show is stirring some controversy over the ethics of the whole thing:

Some legal analysts say the series could exploit the suffering of victims -- including the wrongly convicted -- in the name of entertainment.

"I'd find that very troubling," says Rob Warden, executive director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions. "I wholeheartedly favor calling attention to the innocence movement, and I'm delighted with what Craig Watkins has done while in office, but there are ethical obstacles that have to be negotiated very carefully."

Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel to the Innocence Project of Texas, says the show is a vehicle to boost Watkins' political career.

Watkins denies that the series poses ethical risks or that he was motivated by politics. He says the public needs to see how the process works. "At the end of the day, it will build better trust," he says.

If you just can't wait to watch Watkins on TV, you can tide yourself over with this video of him accepting his Public Official of the Year award in D.C. in November:

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