Interview with Craig Watkins

Radley Balko has a fascinating interview with Dallas County DA Craig Watkins in reason magazine. One point I’d like to highlight:

reason: How should a prosecutor balance his time and resources between prosecuting present-day cases and looking for cases of wrongful conviction?

Watkins: Well, before we got here, there was no one working on innocence cases. So there was no balance, because no one was doing it. We just decided to start a whole new section of the office dedicated solely to innocence. And they’re not only looking for bad convictions, they’re also looking at what policies and procedures we can put in place to keep them from happening in the future. So we aren’t really taking time away from prosecutions. We’ve just added positions that didn’t exist before.

reason: What specific steps did you take after winning office to address this issue?

Watkins: The first thing we did was set up this “Conviction Integrity Unit” in the district attorneys office. We immediately staffed it with two attorneys and two investigators, and told them to look at 400-some-odd cases for which there was DNA available to test. So their responsibility right now is to look through those 400 cases to see if there’s reason to suspect a wrongful conviction. If they find cases, we’ll then collect the DNA and test it. If it shows the person in prison is innocent, we’ll start proceedings for an exoneration.

In addition to that, the unit has the responsibility of training the younger lawyers here in the office on the ethical side of a prosecutor’s job–things like the importance of properly dealing with exculpatory evidence. And we intend to have this section here in this office forever. This is not a pilot program. It’s something I’d like to see spread across the country–where DAs will actively seek out convictions that were obtained unfairly.

Sound familiar? C.O. Bradford, the Democratic candidate for DA here in Harris County, has proposed the same thing. And I think it’s as needed here – and most other places as well – as it is in Dallas. The issues in Harris are perhaps a bit different – where Dallas’ problems mostly stem from Henry Wade’s convictions-uber-alles mentality, the signature item here has been the spectacular incompetence of various court-appointed defense attorneys. That’s something that will be mitigated going forward if the proposed and under study public defender’s office takes flight, but in the end, the different problems lead to the same result of people being wrongly convicted. It’s the DA’s job not to just avoid these problems as best they can, but also to work to correct them when they become known. I hope we follow Craig Watkins’ lead in this regard.

Anyway, there’s a lot more good stuff there, so check it out. Thanks to Grits for the link.

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