We’re used to candidates running on reform platforms. And we’re used to watching, sullenly, as those reforms don’t happen. When candidates fail to reform, whether they lie for our votes or meet insurmountable hurdles, we often expect it and excuse it.
That’s why Craig Watkins is such a surprise; his reforms happened. When Watkins ran for Dallas County District Attorney in 2007, he said he wanted to protect Dallas’ most vulnerable. This included those who naturally come to mind—victims of sex offenders and child predators—but Watkins also included some of our most neglected and defenseless citizens, the wrongfully incarcerated.
After his election, Watkins immediately set up a “Conviction Integrity Unit” with two main focuses: 1. to educate district attorneys about what can lead to wrongful conviction, such as flawed eyewitness identifications, poor police work, improper handling of exculpatory evidence, and a common DA mentality that convictions are always good; and 2. to scour nearly 500 cases that had available DNA and any reason to suspect a wrongful conviction. Attorneys then tested that DNA and, when it didn’t match the inmate, started exoneration proceedings. Thus far, the Conviction Integrity Unit has freed thirty people. For this, Craig Watkins received honors (earned) and awards (deserved) and there was little doubt he could ride the wave of his accomplishments into re-election. But he didn’t just ride the wave. He promised more.
Since his reelection in 2010, Watkins has shifted his emphasis to potential innocence cases where no exculpatory DNA evidence exists. As Innocence Matters knows well, innocence cases with no DNA evidence are hard to prove. Very hard. They require investigation and time, tracking down witnesses and old court files, chasing missed loose ends and seeking new evidence of innocence.
Watkins also began to speak about using the Conviction Integrity Unit as a model for national implementation. Even though other jurisdictions may not have preserved DNA evidence for as long as Dallas has, the program’s preventative successes may prove monumental. And the program could cause a long-term shift in prosecutors’ mindsets away from the present incentive structure, which equates convictions with wins and wins with job security. This is just the kind of systemic change and focus on prevention that Innocence Matters trumpets in our mission statement. When wrongful convictions are prevented, innocent people don’t become inmates, their letters don’t end up in the endless piles amassing at innocence organizations, and their lives are not needlessly scarred by prison. There’s no question that wrongful convictions need to be prevented on the front-end rather than remedied after trial.
We at Innocence Matters are not unique in applauding Craig Watkins. We are also not unique in our thankfulness to him. Best of all, we are no longer unique in our obsessive dedication to preventing wrongful convictions and helping the innocent who have no DNA evidence. We have an ally in Craig Watkins, and we are touched and heartened by his efforts.