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Cover Story

The Last Temptation of Craig Watkins

The only black district attorney in Texas has won fame for breaking barriers and freeing innocent men. But can he overcome his enemies—and his own thin skin?
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

In Craig Watkins’ office high atop the Frank Crowley Courts Building, there is a small table nestled against the front of his desk, flanked on either side by a black leather chair. On the table there are three books: A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner’s Will Smith-approved memoir of his journey from homelessness to Wall Street; and Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Guide to Ethics and Civil Liability (second edition). Atop the books sits a short stack of recent issues of Jet magazine.

Nothing would seem to sum up the last two years of Watkins’ life so neatly as that little table. A district attorney (Doing Justice) who, though he has faced long odds and is often underestimated (The Pursuit of Happyness), strives for a significant change in The Way Things Are Done (A Call to Conscience). Oh, and he’s black (Jet). But it’s not that simple.

Watkins, 41, is full of contradictions. He has the resolve to take on decades of history, the legacy of one of the most well-known DAs in America (Henry Wade), and an entire criminal justice system. But he’s also so sensitive that he can’t help but recall slights suffered on the campaign trail more than two years ago, the kind of rearview-mirror business that shouldn’t bother a man bent on progress. He’s helplessly showy at times and can be immodest. He is, after all, the first black DA in Texas history. Yet his biggest fear is being trapped by his own celebrity, tripping over his own press clippings and highlight reels. With DNA testing, Dallas County has freed more wrongly convicted men than anywhere else in the country, and last year 60 Minutes gave Watkins much of the credit.

In short, he is just a man. A man with a powerful position and, on the right day, history at his back—but still a man, with flaws and foibles like all the rest. He’s a work in progress. He’s still figuring it all out. In just six months, the time it took to report this story, I saw the evolution of Craig Watkins.

Watkins is a big guy, 6-foot-5 and broad, and he carries himself so that not an inch or pound is unaccounted for. When he enters his office and deposits himself into one of those leather chairs next to the table, he sinks into his seat like a bored king, weighing his chin in one giant paw, his legs jutting out like flying buttresses. While we’re here: his skin isn’t caramel-colored. It’s black. The color of coffee with no cream. Even today, that color puts some people on edge, scares them just a little bit.

It’s May 21, 2008. It’s been 506 days since Watkins took office. The narrative that took shape when he ran for district attorney in 2002 (against Bill Hill), and again in 2006, has been added onto substantially, of course, in the intervening years, given all that has happened since. But the core of it—the origin story, if you will—remains unchanged. It says that Watkins was a political neophyte who came out of nowhere, riding the tide of a motivated Democratic base. He did not win so much as the Republicans were defeated. It could have been anyone. Watkins was a cipher, a warm body, a name on the ballot at the right place and time.

Part of this is true. The Democratic base was motivated in 2006. But though Watkins was unknown north of I-30, he was no stranger to politics or local government. His uncle Ted Watkins, who passed away in November, was a four-term president of the Dallas chapter of the NAACP. His aunt Deborah Watkins is the city secretary. His cousin Kurt Watkins is the head of the communications committee for the Dallas County Young Democrats.

“I think the southern sector always knew him,” Kurt says. “Black Dallas knew who Craig Watkins was 10 years ago. In South Dallas, the Watkins name is a big deal.”

When he won the job of Dallas County district attorney, Watkins became the first black man to hold that position in this or any other county in Texas. At the time, he knew he was breaking new ground at home, but he didn’t find out that distinction applied statewide until the day he was sworn in, when state Sen. Royce West mentioned the fact in a speech after the ceremony. Watkins knew he was making history; he just didn’t know how much.

“I didn’t even think about it from that standpoint,” he says. “So that really gave me an idea of what all this meant. I had a responsibility—not just for Dallas, but for the state—to address some of the ills of our criminal justice system. Just to make it better.”

And so the man who campaigned on a platform of reform has slowly come to realize that one of the things in the district attorney’s office that needs to change is—him.

“If you look at Martin Luther King, when he gave that speech in Alabama during the bus boycott, when he was first put on the national scene to head the civil rights movement, you look at him as a person, and you read his writings and speeches, and you see he evolved into the position,” he says. His heavily lidded eyes flicker toward the table and A Call to Conscience. “I don’t think he knew what he was getting into. I don’t think Barack Obama knew what he was getting into. Hell, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I think at some point you evolve into it and you realize that this is a lot larger than you personally.”

He’s still clearly in the early stages of that evolutionary process. When he speaks—which he does in a surprisingly high voice that’s lightly coated in black vernacular; he always says “querstion” instead of “question,” and sometimes opts for “axe” instead of “ask”—it’s apparent that Watkins is still taking things very personally. He can’t let things go. Though some would attribute his status as one of the most prominent district attorneys in the country to a series of star-making profiles (in the New York Times and Texas Monthly and, most notably, the 60 Minutes segment devoted to him on May 4) that appeared in the wake of the unprecedented number of DNA exonerations emerging from Dallas County, Watkins isn’t as cozy with the fourth estate as that publicity would suggest, especially locally. In March, a series of stories ran in the Dallas Morning News about his alleged improper use of a county car, which followed close on the heels of the collective smirk that greeted his theatrical unveiling of newly discovered documents related to the JFK assassination (the documents turned out to be nothing more than a curiosity). But what sticks in his mind is what happened before he was elected.

“I think they have to make up for all the things they did to me when I was running,” he says. He was embarrassed to walk through the halls of his sons’ school, he says, worried that the other parents and teachers had read the stories that, he says, portrayed him as a criminal and incompetent. Every bit of negative press since then has picked at that scab, never letting it fully heal. His sensitivity used to be even more acute. At least he has stopped commenting on every blog post tagged “Craig Watkins.” “At this point, I’ve realized that I can’t sit around and respond to all the things they write about me,” he says. “That’s part of the evolution.”

But he can’t help himself. He would rather be talking about his work with the Innocence Project of Texas and his new conviction integrity unit and the men who were wrongly imprisoned that he helped free. But Watkins’ conversational GPS is broken. No matter what destination he chooses, his aggravation keeps him circling back to those old Morning News stories.

“I come into office under this big microscope, which I understand,” he says. “But all these other folks that had been in this position, you never challenged them. As a result of that, we’ve got all these exonerations. Had the fake drug scandal. Had a DA [Bill Hill] give $1 million away of money that I should be using for the benefit of the citizens of Dallas County. That was never questioned. Giving $400,000 to a special prosecutor on the fake drug scandal, in December, right after I was elected, two years after the fact. And then he’s over there partners with them.” True enough, Bill Hill works with former special prosecutor Dan Hagood at his criminal defense firm, Fitzpatrick Hagood Smith & Uhl. So does Toby Shook, the prosecutor Watkins beat out for the DA job. “No one asks any questions about that. But you’re gonna question me, ask if I’m doing something wrong, say that I’m morally challenged? That’s what upsets me about politics.”