RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The November elections completely altered the political landscape of a city that's been pretty conservative. Dallas elected the first black district attorney in Texas - Craig Watkins - and then he took a big step. Watkins says he'll reopen hundreds of cases from the past 30 years to see whether DNA tests might reveal wrongful convictions.
NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.
WADE GOODWYN: To understand the enormity of the change that has occurred in the Dallas district attorney's office over the last six weeks, it helps to remember just what this city was like through most of the 20th century. Dallas used to be a place where John Birchers thrived, where the citizen's council set the government agenda, and where - when John F. Kennedy was assassinated downtown in 1963 - there were more than a few who nodded in quiet satisfaction.
But if the election of Craig Watkins proves anything, it's that that city is gone with the wind.
Mr. GARY UDASHEN (Criminal Attorney, Texas): Well, Dallas is different.
GOODWYN: Gary Udashen is one of the most prominent criminal attorneys in Texas.
Mr. UDASHEN: It's a whole different world in the Dallas criminal justice system. 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 to say, to look at what we have to show them, where we don't anticipate resistance every step of the way.
GOODWYN: 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 Craig Watkins has decided that defending wrongful convictions is not going to be his job as district attorney.
Mr. UDASHEN: Well, he has taken a completely different approach to questions of innocence and people serving time in prison who were actually innocent, where he is going to cooperate with this innocence projects, reviews of these cases, give them the information they need, and that active involvement in the proving of innocence is something that I've never seen a district attorney do before.
Mr. CRAIG WATKINS (District Attorney, Dallas): Well, I am cut from a different cloth.
GOODWYN: Thirty-nine-year-old Craig Watkins says he's seen both sides of the criminal justice system in Dallas - the 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.
Mr. WATKINS: And we've tested 36 people, and 12 of them came up to be not guilty as a result of DNA testing, then yeah - a red flag is raised. So we need to look what we've been doing in the past and try to right those wrongs.
GOODWYN: 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 sifting which cases merit further investigation. Jeff Blackburn is the project's Texas director.
Mr. JEFF BLACKBURN (Director, Texas Innocence Project): In a state that is a national hotspot, Dallas is the hottest of the hotspots in this state right now. What's happened in Dallas is that a lot of samples - unlike many other parts of the state - were preserved. They're still there.
GOODWYN: 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.
Mr. BLACKBURN: It would be safe to say that Dallas is right now on the edge of opening up in a very revealing way, what the system in Texas is really all about.
GOODWYN: If that happens, it could be embarrassing for Dallas, and by association, for the rest of Texas. But instead of blame, the new Dallas district attorney will gladly take the credit.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.