Most district attorneys make a name for themselves by winning convictions. Craig Watkins has done it by reversing convictions that never should have happened.
From 1951 to 1987, the Dallas County district attorney's office was the domain of Henry Wade, a legendary prosecutor who personally never lost a case — and who rarely missed an opportunity to seek the maximum punishment for criminals. But in impoverished, predominantly African-American South Dallas, Wade's hardball tactics created resentment and distrust.
"Affluent people, people accepted by society, loved law enforcement. All of the other people who were economically disadvantaged, they didn't trust it — and I think rightly so," says Watkins. So in 2002, Watkins ran for D.A. Despite having no name recognition outside of South Dallas, Watkins came within 10,000 votes of winning. Four years later, he tried again and won, in the process becoming Texas's first elected African-American district attorney.
Watkins had a lot to prove. More than 200 of the 267 attorneys Watkins began managing had actively campaigned for his opponent because they didn't think Watkins had enough trial experience. At the same time, he believed he had a mandate to rectify past injustices. In February 2007, a mere one month after taking office, Watkins found himself face to face with a momentous decision.
The occasion was a court hearing for James Giles, who had spent 10 years in prison for a rape that subsequent DNA testing showed he did not commit. Giles was released. Afterwards, attorneys Barry Scheck and Jeff Blackburn — nonprofit leaders who work to free the wrongfully convicted from prison — presented Watkins with an unprecedented proposal. They volunteered to help Watkins' office review the files of more than 350 inmates, some dating back to as early as 1970, where physical evidence existed that could either confirm the inmate's guilt or establish his innocence.
A riskier step for a novice D.A. would be hard to imagine. Watkins agreed to it. That spring, he went to the Dallas County court of commissioners and won $450,000 to create a conviction-integrity unit to reinvestigate old cases. Since then, the unit has reviewed more than 180 case files, of which 21 have been flagged for DNA testing or further investigation. So far, a total of 19 Dallas County prisoners have been exonerated or freed. What Watkins has shown is that there's as much justice in clearing the names of the innocent as there is in putting the guilty behind bars.
"It's difficult," says Watkins. "I still walk around the office gently because I know there are a lot of people who still don't want me here." But, he says, every time justice is done, we "restore credibility that law enforcement can work for everyone."
— John Buntin
Photo by Danny Turner