Dallas' new district attorney, Craig Watkins, says he will open his files to the Innocence Project and work with the group to examine hundreds of cases over the past 30 years. The goal is to see whether DNA tests might reveal wrongful convictions.
The move reflects the magnitude of the change that has occurred in the Dallas DA's office over the last six weeks. Watkins was elected the first black district attorney in Texas.
"It's a whole different world in the Dallas criminal justice system," says defense attorney Gary Udashen. "It is a world where if a client of ours is innocent, we feel like there's openness in the District Attorney's office to hear what we have say, to look at what we have to show them, where we don't anticipate resistance every step of the way."
Udashen's firm alone has had seven Dallas clients who were convicted, sent to prison, exhausted their appeals and then ultimately — with the pro bono help of Udashen and his colleagues — were found to be innocent.
Udashen says Dallas used to be like many other cities in Texas when it came to the DA's office. If it got a conviction, it defended that conviction to the bitter end, even if strong scientific evidence was later uncovered that the convicted was wrongly convicted.
This occurs most often in cases that are brought to trial built solely on the testimony of a single eyewitness, often the victim. But Udashen says that Watkins has decided that defending wrongful convictions is not going to be part of the job.
"Well, he has taken a completely different approach to questions of innocence... where he is going to cooperate with these innocence projects reviews of these cases, give them the information they need," he says. "And that active involvement in proving people innocent is something I've never seen a district attorney do before."
Watkins puts it this way: "I am cut from a different cloth."
At 39, he says he's seen both sides of the criminal justice system in Dallas, good and the bad. Dallas has already released 12 men convicted of sexual assault, and that was with the previous DA fighting it every step of the way. That's more than any other county in the nation, and more than all but two states.
"And when you tested 36 people and 12 of them came up to be not guilty as a result of DNA testing, then, yes, a red flag is raised," Watkins says. "So we need to look at what we've been doing in the past and try to right those wrongs."
So Watkins is opening his files to the Texas Innocence Project. North Texas law students supervised by seven veteran former prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers will begin deciding which cases merit further investigation.
"In a state that is a national hotspot, Dallas is the hottest of the hotspots in state right now," says Jeff Blackburn, the Innocence Project's Texas director. "What'd happened in Dallas is that a lot of samples, unlike other any other parts of the state, were preserved, and they're still there."
In a twist of irony, Dallas has long outsourced its lab work. And instead of destroying evidence post-conviction like many law enforcement labs, the private labs preserved all the evidence. Blackburn says as a result, Dallas has a treasure trove of potentially exonerating DNA evidence.
"It would be safe to say that right now Dallas is on the edge of opening up in a very revealing way what the system in Texas is really all about," Blackburn says.