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Former Dallas DA Craig Watkins, Creator of Nation's First Conviction Integrity Unit, Dies at 56

The Dallas native was the state’s first Black district attorney and used DNA testing in cases, leading to about two dozen exonerations. His Conviction Integrity Unit has been nationally and internationally recognized.

Craig Watkins, a former Dallas County district attorney known for his work overturning wrongful convictions, died Tuesday, a representative for his family confirmed to The Dallas Morning News. He was 56. In 2008, Watkins was featured as a Governing Public Official of the Year.
Craig Watkins, former Dallas County District Attorney
Heath Harris (left), then-first assistant DA, talks to then-DA Craig Watkins at Crowley Courts Building in Dallas.
(Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)

Watkins, a Dallas native, took office in 2007 after defeating longtime defense attorney Toby Shook, making him the first Black district attorney in Texas. He rode a blue wave into office along with a surge of Democrats who swept courthouse elections.

“The call to public service for Craig was stronger than the conventional wisdom that said a Democrat couldn’t win in Dallas County,” said Jane Hamilton, who served as the Dallas County coordinated campaign manager in 2006. “His smart-on-crime approach served as a model in Texas and across the country. Craig’s legacy lives on.”

Watkins won re-election once before he lost to former judge Susan Hawk, a Republican, in 2014. During his time in office, he created the conviction integrity unit and allowed DNA testing in cases where his predecessor fought it, leading to about two dozen exonerations.

Watkins frequently said it was a prosecutor’s job to “seek justice,” not convictions. The News chose Watkins for Texan of the Year in 2008.

After leaving office, Watkins went into private practice as a defense attorney.

‘Blueprint for the Nation’

Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said in a written statement that Watkins was “bright and ambitious” and leaves behind a powerful legacy — including through his “fierce focus” on prosecuting child abuse cases and with the creation of the nation’s first conviction integrity unit.

The unit, nationally and internationally recognized, is “dedicated to reviewing cases involving allegations of actual innocence,” while also reviewing instances of wrongful convictions related to innocence claims or systemic errors, according to the Dallas DA’s website. It closely collaborates with innocence projects and law enforcement agencies when reviewing cases but is still under the direction of the DA’s office.

“Craig was perfectly human, and those who knew him are better for it,” Creuzot said. “I am proud to have known him, to have worked with him, and to have been elected to the same office he held. He will be missed.”

Heath Harris, who was Watkins’ first assistant DA, told reporters Tuesday afternoon that Watkins’ position as the first Black district attorney in Texas gave people hope and motivation.

Harris is the defense attorney for Lisa Dykes, who is standing trial this week on a murder charge in the high-profile slaying of Seattle woman Marisela Botello Valadez. The court broke for the day after Harris said he received an influx of texts from people about Watkins’ death.

”That was my brother, man,” he told reporters outside the courtroom moments later as tears welled in his eyes. ”Craig didn’t just talk about it, he took a stand.”

Harris said Watkins wasn’t afraid to do unpopular things, which is a “huge part” of his legacy, but added the stress of fighting for people — especially the wrongfully convicted — took a toll on him.

”He had a lot of courage in trying to change the criminal justice system,” Harris said. ”The stuff that he did here set a blueprint for the nation.”

Death Penalty was Personal

Watkins was conflicted about the death penalty, but still sought it. For his first six years in office, from 2007 to 2013, he sent more defendants to death row than any other district attorney in the state. Historically, Harris County, which includes Houston, has sent more, but during that period, Dallas County sent 12 to death row while the larger county sent nine.

In 2012, Watkins, without offering more details, revealed his great- grandfather was executed by the state. He made the statement unprompted after a hearing to exonerate Richard Miles, who was wrongly convicted of murder.

His great-grandfather, Richard Johnson, was executed Aug. 10, 1932. An Associated Press story from October 1931 published in The News said that Johnson was sentenced to death after a jury deliberated for 40 minutes in the murder of a Fort Worth man, Ted Nodurft. The murder occurred just more than a month before the trial.

Johnson was the father of Watkins’ grandmother, Myretha Clark.

“I found out when I was just a child,” Clark, then 85, told The News in February 2012.

When asked if she thought what happened to her father had driven her grandson to seek to one day become Dallas’ top prosecutor and work to free the innocent, Clark said she was too emotional to discuss it.

“I’ll have to talk to you later because I’m just too upset,” she said.

Later that month, Watkins witnessed the execution of George Rivas, the ringleader of a band of prison escapees who killed an Irving police officer during a robbery. He left the witness room without commenting.

‘If It Wasn’t for Craig Watkins, I Might Still Be in Prison’

Michelle Moore said working as a defense attorney with the conviction integrity unit was “an amazing part of my career.” Moore said Watkins included a “public defender, of all things,” which was unusual, and reached out to the Innocence Project of Texas.

“As somebody who was already doing DNA work, I had to fight tooth and nail,” Moore said. “Even when DNA results came back that it was not the person [charged or convicted], I would still have to fight to get them exonerated. So, suddenly, that’s not where we were. Suddenly, we were looking at cases.”

Moore remembers how Watkins allowed for transparency in cases.

“He suddenly took an interest in not hiding information from the defense,” Moore said. “It sounds crazy, but it’s something that we had to battle, and so I respect and appreciate what he did in that regard.”

Mike Ware, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, said Watkins hired him during his first term to run the DA’s conviction integrity unit along with local attorney Terri Moore. Together, their work led to the freeing of about 25 innocent men who were wrongly convicted, he said.

Ware said Watkins showed courage and vision in pursuing the initiative, which was then unheard of in prosecutors’ offices.

”It was an unknown concept at the time,” Ware said. “It is a concept that we basically invented. … He had the political and moral courage to carry it out.”

Ware said Watkins had a “profound positive influence” on the criminal justice system in Dallas and across the nation during his two terms in office.

Christopher Scott was exonerated by Watkins’ conviction integrity unit in 2010 after he spent more than 12 years in prison for a 1997 murder he didn’t commit. Since Scott’s release, he has worked to free others who may be wrongly convicted or received too lengthy a sentence.

Scott said Tuesday that Watkins took a chance on him because his exoneration, along with a co-defendant, was the first in Dallas County without DNA evidence. Watkins, Scott said, came to visit him behind bars and asked if he was guilty of the crime.

”No sir, I’m not,” Scott said.

Watkins told Scott he believed him.

”If it wasn’t for Craig Watkins, I might still be in prison,” said Scott, who saw Watkins often since the day Watkins apologized to him in the courtroom for his wrongful conviction.

Scott said he and the other exonerees had talked about meeting up with Watkins recently for dinner. But it never happened.

Highs and Lows

Watkins graduated from David W. Carter High School in 1986. He earned a political science degree from Prairie View A&M University, then went on to obtain a Juris Doctorate degree from the Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in Fort Worth, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Although he achieved national recognition for his exoneration efforts, his tenure as the county’s top prosecutor was also marked by the FBI investigating him. No charges were filed.

He also faced allegations that he misused civil forfeiture funds.

More recently, the Texas state bar on Nov. 7 issued Watkins a year-long probated suspension. He was still eligible to practice law. Documents in the case said Watkins failed to file a criminal expunction for a client, Earl D. Jackson, who hired Watkins in March 2022 and paid him $2,500.

Harris, the former top prosecutor in Watkins’ office, said he hopes people remember “all the good stuff” about Watkins and the sacrifices he and his family made.

“It’s hard to deal with the normalcy of life when you’ve been at that high plateau affecting people’s lives,” Harris said. “The crowd is everywhere you go — the crowd is yelling now.

“They’re not yelling anymore, but I hope that they never forget the impact he had here in Dallas County.”

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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