Dallas County Uses DNA to Review Death Row Cases

Craig Watkins, Dallas County's district attorney, lays out his plan to implement DNA testing, through the Innocence Project, to inmates on death row.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In his first two weeks as Dallas County district attorney, Craig Watkins saw two men who served long sentences for rape cleared. As in so many cases around the country in recent years, DNA testing proved that they did not commit the crimes they served multiple years for. In Dallas County alone, DNA tests cleared 12 convicted felons. That's the highest number of exonerations of any county in the United States, and larger than the number in over two states.

The tests followed intervention by the Innocence Project, which is based in New York as a national organization. Now, after less than two months in office, DA Watkins has asked the Innocence Project to work with him to review other convictions. If you have questions about what he's doing and why, our phone number in 800-989-8255, and the e-mail address is talk@npr.org. District Attorney Craig Watkins joins us from the studios of Dallas Audio Post in Dallas, Texas. Nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. CRAIG WATKINS (Dallas County District Attorney): Good to be here.

CONAN: And I wonder - you must have been aware of the Innocence Project before you came into office on January 1st. What was your impression of the organization?

Mr. WATKINS: Well, you know, I had heard of the organization, but I really wasn't aware of what they exactly did. So when I got into office, the first week, we had an exoneration. The second week, we had an exoneration. And the Innocence Project played an integral role in those exonerations. And as a result of having 36 tests conducted, and 12 of those tests have come back to show that the individual didn't commit the crime, I felt it only necessary that we looked into all the cases that have requested testing to determine whether or not we need to have those cases tested and reviewed to see if anyone else is in jail for a crime they didn't commit.

CONAN: And so you're going to go back through all of the cases that - going back how far?

Mr. WATKINS: Until 1970, there's about 435 cases that we're going to be looking at. And we're not going to have all those cases tested. We're just going to review those cases and narrow it down to cases that we think are legitimate, and then have those tested.

CONAN: And those whose cases are unaccepted, will they still have the ability to appeal somehow, saying, please, reconsider me? I'm innocent too.

Mr. WATKINS: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, I think that all these cases are going through the appellate process as we speak. Because, you know, some folks, you know, that are in jail, they just, you know, send their motions in for tests just to see what happens. In fact, a lot of them send them in when DNA was not even an issue. So, you know, once me narrow those cases out, we'll be able to get to a control group and have those cases reviewed and get those tested, and hopefully, we can get some innocent folks out of jail.

CONAN: I wonder what's then been the reaction from the police department in Dallas and from the members of the district attorney's office who might have been involved in obtaining those earlier convictions? A lot of organizations might see the Innocence Project as an outside group that could cause them nothing but trouble.

Mr. WATKINS: Well, you know, I don't look at it that way. You know, a lot of folks look at the definition of a DA or a prosecutor as a person that's supposed to prosecute at all costs, get a conviction. My philosophy is a little different. I look at it from the standpoint of dispensing justice. And justice not only means that we prosecute bad folks and send them to jail, but it also means that we vigorously pursue cases whereby innocent folks are in jail and get them out. I mean, it just restores credibility of our system, when we take that approach. It's not about covering up a mistake. It's about admitting a mistake and going forward to resolve it.

So we can, you know, have the confidence of the citizens in Dallas County. You know, if you come down to Dallas and you get picked to sit on a jury, I want you to be confident that we're asking you to do the right thing when we ask you to send someone to prison for a long time, or even ask you to send them to death row.

CONAN: It seems that you're not looking into a mistake. I mean, those are the kinds of exonerations that have happened in the past, the 12 you talked about. You're going back in saying the system seemed to be unable to make these distinctions or come up with a lot of right convictions in a lot of cases. The system needs to be examined in every case, systematically.

Mr. WATKINS: Well, yeah. I mean, the system is on trial here, and in these cases bode well for what I'm trying to do. When you - especially in Dallas County, if you look at us, you know, our city has the highest crime rate in the nation.

We've been one of the most violent cities. And worse than that, we are guilty of sending innocent individuals to jail. So that tells me that we're doing something wrong. And, you know, and it's time for us, you know, to take a different approach on all aspects of criminal justice, and just not DNA. I mean, that's just one aspect that we need to look at. There are also other areas we need to look at in how we deal with this problem we have in Dallas.

CONAN: This could get to be expensive, couldn't it? DNA tests are not cheap.

Mr. WATKINS: No, they're not. You know, they, you know, range form $1,200 to $7,000. But, you know, I'm hoping that, you know, as we go along with this, some philanthropist will feel like doing good and contribute some money so we can do the right thing.

We're not going to ask the citizens of Dallas County to pay for this. And you know, this is the right thing to do. And at the end of the day, when it's all over, said and done, I think we will restore credibility in this system that has failed us in the past.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. There is a distinction between your office and your predecessors'. I think you're the first Democrat to serve as the Dallas County district attorney in, what, 20 years? More than that?

Mr. WATKINS: Oh, it's been about, you know, been about 25 years since we've had a Democrat as a district attorney. The last DA that was a Democrat was Henry Wade of the early '50s, '60s and '70s.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And so I assume you've brought in a whole batch of new assistant district attorneys, as well. So there may not be the institutional resistance that might have appeared in your predecessors' office.

Mr. WATKINS: Well, we've brought in about 10 top-level prosecutor positions, but you'd be surprised. A lot of folks that work with the district attorney's office, they want to do the right thing. But if the climate is not conducive for that, then they just kind of fall in that trap of just keeping their jobs.

And so I think even the folks that are there that were part of the old administrations, they're happy to see what we're doing. You know, I'm unique in a sense, because I'm the first Democrat in a long time and the first African-American district attorney in Texas. And so I can do a lot of things that my predecessors couldn't do.

I'm not tied to that old system, and my view and philosophy is somewhat different than what we've been dealing with here.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. We're speaking with Craig Watkins, the newly elected Dallas County district attorney. And this is Jody. Jody's with us from Tucson, Arizona.

JODY (Caller): Yes, hi. I was wondering if there's any justification or if there's going to be any compensation for the people that are convicted and they're innocent, or if there's any proposal in line for what they're going to do for people that have been in there for years.

CONAN: The two men who were just cleared of those rape charges as you came into office, for example, District Attorney Watkins, they'd served 20 years each.

Mr. WATKINS: Yeah. And fortunately in Texas, we have a law. If you have been proven wrongfully convicted, you're entitled to receive $25,000 a year for the time you were incarcerated up to $500,000. There's some legislation going through our state legislatures right now which is trying to increase that amount to $50,000 a year, not to exceed $1 million. So there are some financial safeguards there if a person is wrongfully convicted.

JODY: Wonderful. That's good to hear, because there are many people who have lost years. So it's good to know that there are things out there for them.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Jody.

JODY: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Let's go to Gary. Gary's with us from Memphis.

GARY (Caller): Yes, Neal, great show.

CONAN: Thanks.

GARY: My question is about this Innocence Project. I realize that it's very good that you clear the truly innocent. But once you do that, doesn't that leave the original crime as unsolved, and does the Innocence Project have any burden in truly going after and convicting the truly guilty of these crimes?

Mr. WATKINS: That's a great question, and that's something that I've been grappling with since I've been here. You see, when you get in the mode of doing things the wrong way, you end up with the person that actually committed the crime still out there doing it.

Unfortunately, some of the crimes are years old. They go all the way back to 1970. So we're going to try at the district attorney's office to right that wrong, first of all, by getting that person out of the jail, and then seeing if we could locate the person that actually committed the crime.

You know, I think that's why we have so many victims' rights groups supporting us in this endeavor, because they want to see justice. And, you know, more times than not, when you're guilty of sending innocent folks to jail, then what you do is give that person that actually committed the crime confidence that he can still go out there and do what he's been doing…

CONAN: But getting back to Gary's question, is it the Innocent Project's responsibility to go back and try to solve those now cold cases, those unsolved crimes? Or is that your job as district attorney?

Mr. WATKINS: Well, that's my job. The Innocence Project is in the business of righting wrongs. You know, a lot of folks look at the organization as being a liberal organization, defense-oriented, but I don't look at it that way.

I look at it from the aspect of justice. And you know, as a DA, as the definition of the criminal justice system in Dallas County, I have a major responsibility, and that responsibility is to restore the credibility of that office. And in doing so, we're going to pursue the bad guys, make sure that they get prosecuted, and make sure they go to jail for a long time.

Now at the same time, we're going to be out there waving the white flag when someone is innocent and, you know, jumping up and down to get them out of jail. And that's the goal of a prosecutor, of a DA.

GARY: Okay, it's just good to hear that balance coming from you on this issue.

CONAN: Okay, Gary, thanks very much for the call.

GARY: Thank you.

CONAN: And I have to ask you. This is all very largely a result of the breakthrough of DNA testing, which has made it possible to go back to these cases - as you say, as far back as 1970, hundreds of them - to examine, you know, obviously not all of them are going to be appropriate for testing, but nevertheless - what happens when a new technology comes along or a more refined version of the DNA test? Do you go back through all of these cases every time there's a significant advance?

Mr. WATKINS: Well, I think, you know, we can't get any more refined than we are now. In 2001 in Texas, we passed a law which allowed for the testing of past DNA cases. And to this point, we can actually just take a pinhead of someone's DNA and determine if that person committed the crime.

So I don't think there's too much farther we can go in DNA testing. I think we're where we need to be, and I'm sure science will go further, but I think the science that we have in place at this point is good enough to resolve the issues that we're dealing with.

But, you know, this goes deeper than DNA. You know, a lot of these folks, if you look at the transcripts of their trials, it was clear from the evidence in the trial that, you know, the folks that were found guilty of these cases probably didn't commit the offense - for example, Mr. Waller(ph).

Mr. Waller just happened to be walking down the street in a neighborhood, an African-American man, and he was picked up by the police. And the only testimony they had was from the victim, which was a 12-year-old boy, and his transcript clearly shows that this young man was led by the prosecutor to testify against Mr. Waller.

And Mr. Waller had an alibi - and it was clear from the transcript that there was some evidence showing that he didn't commit the crime - which the state just disregarded.

CONAN: Craig Watkins, thanks very much for being with us today. Good luck with your project.

Mr. WATKINS: Thank you.

CONAN: Craig Watkins is the Dallas County district attorney. He started serving in that position January 1st of this year. He joined us today from the studios of Dallas Audio Post in Dallas, Texas. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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