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Dallas DA Texan of the Year

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Editorial: Craig Watkins is the 2008 Texan of the Year

Dallas Morning News, Monday, December 29, 2008

On the surface, the courtroom scene typified old-time Texas justice.

The accused killed his family, so he needs killing, the prosecution argued. Among onlookers who filled the wooden benches for closing arguments, there was little doubt how this story would end: with an execution. One of the bailiffs offered his own not-so-subtle take, donning a black tie emblazoned with a white syringe.

But at the prosecutors' table, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins sat, eyes closed, rubbing his temples, gathering himself. Finally, he stood and, for the first time, delivered the words he had dreaded saying.

"Give him what he deserves: the death sentence," Mr. Watkins told jurors.

Here in the state that sanctions killing more often than any other, Craig Watkins is not just another cog in the machinery of death. The first-term Dallas County district attorney has quickly emerged as a transformational figure who has made a name not by securing convictions, but by clearing the way for them to be overturned.

Under his watch, the prison door has swung open again and again, as the wrongly convicted have walked out as free men. He is a prosecutor who has sought the death penalty because it is his professional responsibility but who is personally conflicted.

Mr. Watkins has trained a spotlight on the flaws in the system, and two years after becoming the state's first black district attorney, he is suddenly the new face of Texas jurisprudence.

For his efforts to reform an imperfect criminal justice system and for his willingness to stake out politically precarious territory somewhere between "hug a thug" and "convict at all costs," Mr. Watkins is the 2008 Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year.

Admittedly, this small-time defense lawyer-turned big-deal DA is a lucky guy. He swept into office on a wave of Republican malaise, arrived just as improved DNA technology was employed to overturn convictions, and found himself in one of the few places in the country where evidence was preserved for years after cases were closed.

"Life is all about timing," Mr. Watkins says. "I just happen to be a person with a progressive point of view who is garnering the rewards for this good timing."

Of course, the new DA in town has detractors, critics who want the county's top prosecutor to focus on convictions and leave it to defense attorneys to balance the scales of justice.

Many more observers have hailed his efforts to forge a new approach. He has been written about nationally with splashy headlines like "The Exonerator."

And while his timing was fortuitous, the 41-year-old Democrat is not simply a passive beneficiary or a one-note character. He is actively pursuing a range of reforms that would protect the wrongly accused and appropriately punish the guilty. Not only does he want to clear the innocent, but he also hopes to extend the statute of limitations in DNA cases to ensure that the right person does the time.

He has reinvented his office by creating a conviction integrity unit, an operation that has freed prisoners who were wrongly locked up for murder, robbery and rape. Not content to just notch wins in the courtroom, Mr. Watkins deserves credit for vigilantly pursuing justice – a distinction with an important difference.

Dallas County leads the country in DNA exonerations (19 and counting), and Mr. Watkins has seized upon the attendant acclaim, taking his fight for social justice to statewide and national stages. In his sudden fame, he sees an opportunity to change the way district attorneys do business.

Full of complexities

Mr. Watkins' philosophy – like the courtroom scene in the death penalty case – is more nuanced than first impressions would suggest.

That December day, when Mr. Watkins helped prosecute his first case as district attorney, encapsulated many of the complexities of his tenure.

The former defense lawyer didn't ease into the prosecutor's seat; he started big, with a high-profile trial. Ever sensitive to any suggestion that he's soft on crime, Mr. Watkins attached himself to a gruesome capital murder case, despite his misgivings about allowing a flawed system to mete out an irreversible punishment.

As the trial neared its end, word spread that Mr. Watkins would make the prosecution's final plea for death. Suddenly, the sparsely populated courtroom was standing room only.

Assistant District Attorney Andy Beach led off, describing the murders in grisly, bloody detail and asking the jury to ensure that defendant Robert Sparks would be strapped to a gurney in Huntsville, lethal drugs injected into his veins.

Finally, Mr. Watkins commanded the courtroom.

"Power is scary sometimes," he said. "I promised the citizens of Dallas County that I would only use it when it's absolutely necessary."

Mr. Watkins told jurors how much he valued human life and then, almost reluctantly, he asked them to choose death. They did.

The moment, like so much of Mr. Watkins' professional life these days, was well-documented. He's become a legal celeb, feted in the national media and trailed by a British film crew producing a documentary about his conviction integrity unit.

After wrapping his closing arguments, Mr. Watkins stole a moment away from the cameras in his office on the 11th floor of the criminal courthouse.

"You don't know how difficult that was," he says, staring out the window. "My religion tells me that goes against everything I've been taught."

Mr. Watkins' qualms, though, aren't tied only to his personal faith but also to his analysis of the system.

The argument against the death penalty "is not a moralistic one," says Mr. Watkins, who attends Friendship-West Baptist Church. "It's: Are we making mistakes? And we've made mistakes. We don't have a fail-safe system."

He is working to identify weaknesses in judicial and police procedures both at the local and state levels. In June, Mr. Watkins was named to the newly created Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit, which was charged with examining wrongful convictions.

In Dallas County, he launched an effort this year to re-examine nearly 40 death penalty convictions. The deluge of DNA exonerations has rightly shaken Mr. Watkins' confidence in Texas' approach to criminal justice and has convinced him that the state is capable of a deadly error.

Watkins' detractors

As a broad concept, Mr. Watkins' goal of identifying the wrongfully convicted is nearly unassailable. His detractors often begin by saying, "I'm all for making sure that innocent people are not imprisoned, but ..."

The question has been raised whether such efforts should fall under the district attorney's purview.

"Pardons and parole boards should be concerned with getting people out of prison. Defense attorneys should, too," says John McAdams, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. "Frankly, that's simply the wrong orientation for the DA. ... Prosecutors really ought to be about putting people they think are guilty in prison."

Other district attorneys have quietly offered similar thoughts, but few have gone public with their criticism of Mr. Watkins.

Dallas County Commissioner Ken Mayfield has called the district attorney's conviction integrity unit an unnecessary drain on taxpayer dollars. The county pays more than $400,000 annually to fund the salaries of the conviction integrity team. The Republican commissioner asserts that defense lawyers, along with the Innocence Project of Texas, could continue these efforts without benefit of public dollars.

Mr. Watkins is "costing the taxpayers $480,000 per year that's needless," Mr. Mayfield says.

That is money well spent, however, as long as Mr. Watkins strikes the delicate balance between pursuing convictions and getting them overturned. So far, he has. His conviction rates are comparable to his tough-on-crime predecessors.

Bristles at criticism

More troubling is Mr. Watkins' reflexively cynical response to anything less than high praise. He is quick to blame the media, the Republicans, the racists or anyone else who is handy for ginning up unfair criticism.

He struggles to understand why someone would point out his missteps and says he is always held to a higher standard than other elected officials.

Still, lapses in judgment have been evident during Mr. Watkins' short time in the limelight. For example, his office sought out corporate donors to provide door prizes for a party. The solicitation letters spelled out a quid pro quo: Donate a gift, get face time with the DA.

Mr. Watkins says he did nothing wrong and resents any such suggestion.

In some ways, the rookie still needs to grow into this job.

The pile of positive press Mr. Watkins has received dwarfs the smattering of critical reports. Yet even vaguely unfavorable coverage – figurative pin pricks – seem to hit him like a sucker punch to the gut.

He has been something of a media darling, attracting attention from the likes of 60 Minutes and The Wall Street Journal. After interviewing the Dallas County district attorney, Reason magazine posed the question, "Is this America's best prosecutor?"

Mr. Watkins must guard against believing his own hype.

"People like me usually don't get their due until after they're gone," he says.

'Destined for greatness'

Tanya Watkins says she and her husband both struggle at times with the scrutiny that accompanies this new life in the public eye.

"It's very difficult, because people say things as if they know who he is," Mrs. Watkins says. "They don't know his heart."

Mr. Watkins' wife is both his best advocate and his most trusted adviser, a sounding board who mulls over issues and ideas with him. Whether starting their own businesses or raising three young children, the couple tackles challenges as a team.

"I told him when we first met that he was destined for greatness," says Mrs. Watkins. "Craig always had a game plan."

She calls herself the general of his one-woman army. When he asked jurors to execute the man, she sat in the front row, silently offering her support.

"That was very emotional for him, emotional for me watching," Mrs. Watkins says. "He's still doing some soul searching about it."

When the district attorney walked in the door of their DeSoto home after that wrenching day, he was greeted by 3-year-old daughter Taryn and her trademark "daddy dance."

"She does that every day. No matter how bad it's been, that makes his day," Mrs. Watkins says.

Although Mr. Watkins' family and old friends can't point to a particular accomplishment that might have portended this path, no one seems surprised by his relatively sudden ascension.

"It was all part of the plan," his wife says. "It's only a surprise to people who don't know him and didn't see him coming."

In college, "he was a little more focused than some of us," says Michael Green, a Dallas doctor and Mr. Watkins' fraternity brother at Prairie View A&M University. "We were in college, and he was already getting ready for law school. He was just someone you respected."

Mr. Watkins, who graduated from Dallas' Carter High School, says that political office long has been his objective and that he knew early on that education was empowerment.

After his graduation from Texas Wesleyan School of Law, he and his wife opened a law practice and title company. In 2002, he took his first shot at the district attorney's office, losing to incumbent Bill Hill. Four years later, he upended veteran prosecutor Toby Shook, Mr. Hill's handpicked successor.

Those who came before him

Both Republicans take umbrage at the perception that Mr. Watkins is solely responsible for the exonerations in Dallas County. Mr. Shook points out that the majority of freed prisoners were cleared during Mr. Hill's tenure. And, he notes, previous administrations actually instructed the medical examiner's office to preserve the evidence that now is used for DNA testing.

Exonerations "would have continued under anyone who was elected," Mr. Shook says. "I give [Mr. Watkins] credit for giving it emphasis, but we were doing this."

Mr. Watkins disagrees. Too often in the past, he says, defendants were exonerated despite the district attorney's efforts – not because of them.

"They stood in the way," Mr. Watkins says of his predecessors. "We actively pursue it."

Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York, says that Mr. Watkins' conviction integrity unit has been admired and emulated across the country.

"Sometimes district attorneys are reluctant to admit that a mistake was made," Mr. Scheck says. "What he proved is if the district attorney's office is not afraid to admit that a mistake was made and correct it, then juries will reward them for it. By doing justice, you establish credibility."

While Mr. Watkins and his allies acknowledge that much remains to be done, the district attorney in many ways has been the octane fueling recent progress. During his first year in office, he laid the groundwork for many of these efforts.

Now, as he approaches the halfway mark in his four-year term, Mr. Watkins has found his footing and is making important strides.

He campaigned on a promise to be "smart on crime," a simple slogan that is more complicated in the follow through. Over time, he has refined that vision, detailing a list of initiatives aimed at improving efficiency and restoring credibility. From opening the district attorney's case files to setting guidelines for eyewitness testimony, Mr. Watkins' ideas have begun to affect the way people view "Texas justice."

He is a compelling change agent. And political allies and rivals alike can't help musing about his next move. Mr. Watkins is pondering that as well while still emphasizing that he has work to do as district attorney.

"Any person in politics would be lying to you if they told you they don't have aspirations beyond where they are," he says. "Will I be afforded the opportunity to pursue loftier goals? I don't know. It's just too early."

Mr. Watkins still is a work in progress. But he has elevated the debate about the quality of justice and has altered our view of the job that district attorneys everywhere should do.

For these game-changing efforts, Craig Watkins is the 2008 Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year.

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Of all Watkins' detractors, they couldn't get one DA in all of Texas to say anything negative about him, so they had to go to Marquette University and find a JFK Assassination Buff and Lone Nut Professor to say Watkins has the "wrong orientation," and he's not talking sex, and "Prosecutors really ought to be about putting people they think are guilty in prison."

Now me and McAdams finally agree on something, and I can't wait until the Dallas DA and Texas "Man of the Year" begins prosecuting all of those crimes committed by criminals who were never even persued because the previous prosecutors thought they were guilty.

Having established a sepecial conviction integrety unit to let innocent free, they should establish a special task force to investigate and prosecute every crime for which an innocent person was wrongfully convicted and freed. Beginning with the murders of John F. Kennedy and J.D. Tippit.

They got McAdams without mentioning his fascination with the Kennedy assassination, and also neglected to mention Watkins' releasing the records that the previous DAs had hoarded and failed to turn over to the ARRB. - BK

Watkins' detractors

As a broad concept, Mr. Watkins' goal of identifying the wrongfully convicted is nearly unassailable. His detractors often begin by saying, "I'm all for making sure that innocent people are not imprisoned, but ..."

The question has been raised whether such efforts should fall under the district attorney's purview.

"Pardons and parole boards should be concerned with getting people out of prison. Defense attorneys should, too," says John McAdams, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. "Frankly, that's simply the wrong orientation for the DA. ... Prosecutors really ought to be about putting people they think are guilty in prison."

Other district attorneys have quietly offered similar thoughts, but few have gone public with their criticism of Mr. Watkins.

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  • 3 months later...






No other reality show on television can offer a prize even close to the one given to the winners on Investigation Discovery's new "Dallas DNA."

They get their freedom.

"Dallas DNA" tracks the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Dallas district attorney's office, whose mission is to reexamine old convictions using DNA technology developed since the case went to trial.

This is high-stakes stuff, though that doesn't always translate to high television drama.

Much of "Dallas DNA" feels clinical, more like a documentary than a story in which the fate of a person's life will be determined.

Since most of the action happens under a laboratory microscope, what we see is an investigator going over the test results with a prisoner. The word "anticlimax" comes to mind.

That's not a criticism, however. Clearly the producers decided that the subject matter required a serious treatment, without a lot of overheated language or loud melodramatic music, and that was the right call.

To treat it otherwise would risk trivializing a program whose early statistics are sobering. In the 40 or so cases it has reopened, the DA's office found 19 in which DNA did not match, that is, someone was wrongfully convicted.

We meet one of those convicts tonight, Johnnie Lindsey, who served 26 years for a sexual assault someone else committed.

Lindsey is an ideal and perhaps atypical subject. He's polite, soft-spoken and not seething with rage that he lost everything because of this conviction.

Lindsey is the most moving part of tonight's "Dallas DNA," though his case raises an 800-pound question about the DA's admirable program.

When Lindsey is exonerated and released, he is given nothing. He doesn't get a nickel. He doesn't get a clean shirt and pants. He doesn't get a place to live. He gets no help in reestablishing his life with basic needs like ID cards.

He gets hugs from people in the program, who talk about what a great day it is for everyone. But "Good luck, pal" just doesn't seem like fair compensation for 26 years of his life.

Lindsey's lucky, it turns out. Family members are located and they take him in. Let's guess that's not always the case.

"Dallas DNA" tells an important and sobering story about our justice system, and how one office is patching up a bad crack.

As television, it's a curious paradox, at some points leaving big questions unasked and at other points padding footage that essentially marks time while we wait for a resolution.

But by the standards of shows in this genre, "Dallas DNA" is the rare real deal.


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