Growing DNA Exonerations Lead to Action
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Dallas district attorney Craig Watkins had already made history last November when he became the first elected African-American district attorney in Texas. But his latest project has brought him national attention. He's among the first in the country to allow a systematic review of cases where his office had already gotten convictions to see whether DNA tests might make a difference.
Nationally, more than 200 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence after their cases had been decided. Twelve of those cases were in Dallas County -more than any other county in the country.
Craig Watkins is at our member station KERA in Dallas to talk more about why he's doing this. Mr. Watkins, thank you for joining us.
Mr. CRAIG WATKINS (District Attorney, Dallas County): Well, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Was this something you talked about during your campaign, or is this something that came to you after you were elected?
Mr. WATKINS: Well, obviously during the campaign, there was an issue as to the credibility of the district attorney's office here in Dallas County. And those issues arose as a result of the 12 exonerations that we had had in Dallas over the past five years.
And so it was an issue in the campaign, but once I took the seat, I had the opportunity to meet with Barry Scheck and some other individuals at Innocence Project and talked about how we could, basically, bring credibility back to the DA's office in Dallas County.
And I just thought it was a good fit, because Barry Scheck and his organization, they weren't interested in freeing individuals that actually committed crimes. They were interested in freeing the innocent.
MARTIN: So the Innocence Project is a non-profit group that has dedicated itself to reviewing cases where there may be a wrongful conviction. What is the criterion that they're going to use in Dallas to decide which cases should be reopened. Do you know?
Mr. WATKINS: There have basically been over 400 petitions for DNA testing with the Dallas County district attorney's office. And the majority of those had been filed before I took office. Now it was the stance of the prior administration to deny our request, if the court made them agree to the tests, and then they would go ahead and do that.
So we felt it only necessary that we look in all of the petitions that have been filed with the office. And as a result of that, we're going to have to review over 400 cases. And fortunately, within the last two weeks, while we went to our Commissioner's Courtroom, we were able to get funding to fund a whole new department for the district attorney's office in Dallas County, and it's in a department that's called conviction integrity.
And basically, the goal of that department is to ensure that the convictions that we seek and we gain are legitimate. And one of the responsibilities of that department will be to review all of the DNA requests that we've gotten in the past.
MARTIN: If you go back through all those petitions and you find no cases in which DNA makes a difference, how will you feel?
Mr. WATKINS: Out of 13 exonerations that we have had in the past five years, they were as a result of testing 35 cases. That's almost half. And so I believe that when we test 400, if we just look at the numbers, there is obviously going to be someone that has been wrongfully convicted that's actually sitting in prison right now.
MARTIN: And if that's the case, is anyone going to be held accountable for that?
Mr. WATKINS: Yes, we're actually pursuing - actively seeking the person that actually committed the crime. Unfortunately, we have a statute of limitations on several of these crimes. So even if we can find who actually committed the crime, we may not be in a position to prosecute them.
But what we can do as a result of this new technology is to go back to our lawmakers, our state legislature, when the session begins again and say, look. We have this new technology, so we may need to expand the statute of limitations on certain cases so we can go back and prosecute these individuals that commit these crimes.
MARTIN: DNA testing has been available for post-conviction cases in Texas - as I understand - since 2001, so why wouldn't you want to reopen a case if there was a question about its validity?
Mr. WATKINS: The philosophy of the prior administrations - it was basically to protect the conviction. And that's not the goal of the district attorney's office. The Code of Criminal Procedure basically states that the prosecutor - the district attorney - they're supposed to seek justice. And sometimes that means that we have to convict someone and send him to jail for a long time.
And that also means that we have a responsibility to free the innocent. And I believe that before 2001, we didn't have the laws that allowed us to go back and test these cases. As a result of this law, the petitions basically flooded in after 2001. Unfortunately, for the folks that were here before me, they felt it necessary to stand behind those convictions, albeit they may not have been legitimate.
MARTIN: Do you think race is a part of it?
Mr. WATKINS: Obviously, it is. Race a part of the criminal justice system. And I would be remiss if I didn't factor that into the equation. I'm just being honest, and race has always been a part of what we deal with in the criminal justice system, and that's one aspect that I want to eventually weed out of the system.
MARTIN: But how did you think race plays a part in it? Do you think that African-American men are more likely to, what? Have poor counsel? To not have access to DNA testing? To not have aggressive representation? Do you think that they're more likely to - I mean, how exactly do you think race plays a part of it?
Mr. WATKINS: Unfortunately, African-Americans are on the lower spectrum of the economic scale, so they can't afford adequate counsel. Secondly, African-Americans, men especially, have been painted in the media as criminals. And so when you have those folks that enter the court system, there's this prejudice against them.
The question is not what can the DA prove that they did. The question is what did they do. And so they have a higher burden to eclipse in order to get justice in Texas, and I think throughout the country.
And so by being the first African-American district attorney in Texas, I believe we have come a long way, but we do have a long way to go. And I am in a position to have a conversation about these issues whereby my predecessors were not in a position to even address this issue.
MARTIN: You mentioned earlier that Dallas has had about, what? Twelve or 13 post-conviction exonerations due the DNA testing? As I understand it, that is more exonerations than any county in the country. Why do you think that is?
Mr. WATKINS: I think it's several reasons for the - having so many overturned. One of the main reasons is that, fortunately, Dallas has had a policy of keeping the evidence. And so we have the evidence to go back and test. I believe that another reason for it is that we have a philosophy here with our criminal justice system - the district attorney's office - and it was basically to get a conviction at all costs.
And so I believe when you couple those two together, the fact that we still have the evidence and the fact the we had that mentality here, then we're -have that dubious distinction of being a place where justice has not been served.
MARTIN: Obviously, it's terrible to be accused of something you didn't do, let alone to be convicted and serving time for something you didn't do. But even if you've had 13 exonerations in five years, that's a tiny, tiny number compared to the number of convictions that had been upheld over the years.
So what do you say to those who would argue that you are casting aspersions on the system, which - for all of its worts and its inadequacies - is still doing justice in the majority of cases?
Mr. WATKINS: The criminal justice system is - it's supposed to be a safe fail. We're not supposed to fail. And when we have one individual that has been wrongfully convicted or even sent to death row, then the question of the criminal justice system becomes an issue. When I have individuals that come down and sit on the jury in Dallas County, and they have in the back of their minds that we may convict an innocent individual, that makes the job that I have harder. I believe that as a district attorney of Dallas County, the citizens should have faith in what we're doing and know that we are there to protect them and also to provide adequate representation to the residents of this county.
And so we're in a position now to restore that credibility to let folks understand and believe in the system and allow these folks to contemplate as to whether or not this system works. And I believe as time proceeds that we will restore the credibility of this system and get that doubt out of individual's minds.
MARTIN: What would you say to those who argue that opening these cases up again is very painful for the victims as well, and who believe that they may have put some painful chapters of their lives to rest?
Mr. WATKINS: Well, I disagree with that. Because if you think about it, when you convict someone that actually did not commit the crime, the person that actually committed is still out there, and they're probably still out there committing crimes. And I think that opening these cases will give a victim some solace and make them feel a lot better about the system and know that not only are we opening these cases, but we are seeking the individuals that actually committed the crime against them.
MARTIN: And what do you say to those who would argue that you're sending the wrong message for a prosecutor whose job is to protect the community - in effect, that you're softer on crime. What do you say to that?
Mr. WATKINS: Well, I would strongly disagree with that. It's easy for us to have that conviction mentality. If we get a case, our goal is to prosecute it no matter what that evidence is and try to send someone to prison. That's easy. It's hard for us to actually think about what we're doing and try to do the right thing.
And I believe that, you know, as time goes on - you know, unfortunately, we in Texas are used to a district attorney getting on TV with a cowboy hat on, some boots, some dip in his mouth, telling us that we're going to send them all to prison. But that's not what a DA is supposed to do. We're supposed to seek justice that's codified in the Code of Criminal Procedure in Texas, and it's in the constitution.
So in seeking justice, we will convict and send individuals to jail for a long time if we have to. But we also have a responsibility of ensuring that we don't send someone to jail that didn't commit the crime. My opponents will tell you that I am being soft on crime. Well, I take a different position. I'm just being smart on crime, and I'm actually thinking through what we're trying to do. It takes some intellectual knowledge of what we're doing, and you have to think about what we're doing. I believe that as we go along, we will prove our opponents wrong and restore credibility in this system.
MARTIN: Mr. Watkins, do you really need to tell me you have no cowboy boots?
Mr. WATKINS: Well, I do have a pair of cowboy boots, but I only wear them on the weekend with jeans. I don't wear them to work everyday.
MARTIN: Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. WATKINS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Craig Watkins is a district attorney for Dallas County, Texas. He joined us from member station KERA in Dallas.
And, of course, there's another side to this story. Some argue that the issue of wrongful convictions is overblown, and prosecutors should be more concerned with getting convictions than overturning them. What do you think? Let us know. Please log on to npr.org/tellmemore and keep the conversation going.
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MARTIN: Just ahead, shock jock Don Imus lost his job for saying words that some music artists use everyday. One of hip-hop's leading ladies tells us how she changed her ways.
MC LYTE (Rapper): I was young, you know, from the hood, and this is how we communicated with each other. Once you grow and you hit a certain level of maturity, you understand that word had a lot of power.
MARTIN: MC Lyte kicks off our series on Hip-Hop Under Fire, coming up next on TELL ME MORE.
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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues - TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
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