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Former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins Dead at 56

The two-term DA was the first Black man to hold that office anywhere in the state. He died at home on Tuesday.
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Former District Attorney Craig Watkins, photographed in 2009. Elizabeth Lavin

Former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who in 2007 became the first Black man in the state of Texas to be elected to that position, died Tuesday. He was 56.

The Dallas County Medical Examiner confirmed Watkins’ death. Russell Wilson, who worked for the Dallas County District Attorney’s office with Watkins, told WFAA that Watkins died Tuesday morning in his home.

“The Watkins family appreciates all the community calls and outreach of support,” Russell said. “The family would ask that you respect their privacy at this time.”

Watkins served as DA from 2007 to 2014, when he lost to Susan Hawk. He gained national attention for establishing the country’s first conviction integrity unit during his tenure. Under his tenure, 24 people were exonerated after Watkins ordered reviews on more than 400 cases that his predecessor, Bill Hill, had denied. (Hill served as DA from 1999 to 2007.) The rapid pace of the unit found several cases that used DNA to prove innocence. Those exonerations spurred Investigation Discovery to create Dallas DNA, a show about the unit’s work. In 2008, the Dallas Morning News named him its Texan of the Year.

Watkins said in 2017 that he briefly considered running against Hawk’s appointed replacement Faith Johnson but ultimately decided to continue working as a defense attorney in private practice. 

As word of his death spread Tuesday night, those who worked with him expressed condolences.

“So sad, my heart is broken. Mr. Craig Watkins saved my life,” Christopher Scott, who was declared innocent in 2010 after serving 13 years in prison, said on social media Tuesday night.

“Craig was perfectly human, and those who knew him are better for it,” current Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said in a statement. “I am proud to have known him, to have worked with him, and to have been elected to the same office he held. He will be missed.”

Despite his accolades, Watkins also bristled against criticism and how the media portrayed him. In a 2009 profile in D Magazine by Senior Editor Zac Crain, he was philosophical as he reflected.

“We make mistakes,” he said. “We do things that are wrong. But I think if you’re doing it with a good heart and good intentions and you make a mistake, people are more willing to forgive you and keep you in office and do things for you, as opposed to when you try to cover it up and to hide it. To try to make you out to be this person that needs to be put on this pedestal and be better than God—I think that’s what we had in the past with politicians locally. Admit your mistakes. Admit the problems that you had. And go on, because everybody has them.”

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.
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