February 21, 2007
Craig Watkins

I loved this profile of new Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins that ran in yesterday's Chron. It's truly refreshing to see a DA who's more interested in getting it right than in racking up statistics.

When DNA evidence exonerated James Waller last month, freeing him from the crushing and false accusation that he raped a 12-year-old boy in 1982, newly installed District Attorney Craig Watkins was in the courtroom to express his regret.

"When you send someone to prison for something they didn't do, you go down there and apologize, and you don't let it happen again. I don't want to be apologizing 20 years from now," Watkins said in an interview last week.


[Prior DA Henry] Wade prided himself on a high conviction rate and stiff sentences, but along with the office's hard-nosed reputation came accusations of a win-at-any-cost attitude and a history of wrongful convictions that shadows it to this day.

In addition to Waller, 11 others have been exonerated since 2001 through new DNA testing, more than in any other U.S. county. Nine of those date to Wade's administration.

"I'm not part of that failed system," said Watkins, who twice tried for a job in the office. "I'm fresh. I have nothing to protect."

Here's the thing, which I've touched on before but I'll say again because it bears repeating: Truly being "tuff on crime" necessarily implies a strong commitment to take injustices, both past and future, seriously. Every time the system, through neglect, incompetence, disregard for due process, or just plain bad luck, locks up a James Waller, it's not just putting an innocent person in prison. It's leaving a guilty person on the streets to keep doing what he or she has been doing. Every James Waller represents a tolerance for and an indifference to the crimes that will be committed and the people that will be victimized by the person who should have been punished but wasn't. Fighting to keep a James Waller in prison in the face of real excuplatory evidence for whatever the reason isn't being tuff on crime, it's being myopic and pigheaded about it.

Watkins doesn't just get this, he knows how to communicate it:

In his first weeks on the job, he has worked to assure a skeptical public that his new approach does not mean he is soft on crime in the nation's most crime-plagued major city.

Watkins said he is seeking the death penalty in the retrial of Thomas Miller-El, a case that shed light on the office's one-time practice of excluding minorities from juries.

Miller-El was sentenced in 1986 to die for the robbery and murder of an unarmed Irving motel clerk, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2003 because the jury selection was "suffused with bias."

"This person who killed two people heinously, who should have been dealt with a long time ago, he's getting a break because those prior administrations didn't see fit to do it right," Watkins said as he leaned over his desk in a spare office, its walls filled with bare spots and empty picture hooks. "We're going to do it right."

I love the framing of this. Because his predecessor didn't care about the process, we have to do it over. Because he was willing to cut corners, we're back at square one. Because we're going to treat the rules as a needed framework and not a nuisance to be gotten around, we won't have problems like these down the line. It's powerful stuff. I don't know if Watkins will cast an eye on higher office someday, but if he does I'll be very happy to support him.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 21, 2007 to Crime and Punishment