Thanks to Errol Morris’ documentary The Thin Blue Line and a growing number of wrongly convicted men exonerated by DNA evidence, Dallas County long had a reputation as a place where justice was quick but not always just. Fresh off a historic win that made him the county’s (and state’s) first black district attorney, Craig Watkins made a move to erase that reputation, and the practices that had led to it, by creating the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit in 2007.
When I was campaigning, and even before that, when I was a defense attorney, I’d seen all these issues of claims of innocence. When I was campaigning for office—in fact, maybe a month before the election—a story came out about this guy who was going to be freed for a crime he didn’t commit. They did a little blurb in the newspaper. A guy from the newspaper called me, and I was like, “You know, I told you so. I told you all this stuff was going on.” He just started laughing, laughing it off, blew me off.
And then I came into office and started looking at the files, and looking at all the claims that we had gotten before I’d gotten here that were denied. There were like 400 files that had requested this DNA deal that were denied. So we started looking at those files and saw there was legitimacy to these claims, outside of the scientific part. We looked at the facts of the case and all that. We thought, there is some legitimacy to all this. To first assistant district attorney Terri Moore’s credit, she came in and said that we need to go ahead and put something in place to systematically look at this. I said, “Yeah, you’re right. We need to formulate some ideas.”
So we sat down, and I guess we talked about it and talked about how we were going to do it, for about a week. And then the time came for us to implement it, and to be honest with you, I was a little, you know, taken aback or leery or kind of on edge about doing it that early on in our administration. Because we did it—I don’t think it was even six months in. I was still dealing with the difficulties of being elected, people questioning my competence. And here I am, this first black DA, being an advocate for letting folks out of jail. So I was thinking about it from that perspective.
What convinced me to go forward was Terri Moore: “This is something that needs to be done. It’s not just Dallas County. I saw the same thing in Tarrant County.” She had dealt with a lot of defense attorneys from a lot of different areas, and she was like, “We’ve got to do this.” I was saying, “Terri, but politically, what does that mean for the success of this office? Are the citizens of Dallas County ready for something like this? We’ve got to look at it long-term. Change has to come, but we don’t want to do it too quickly. We have to be very careful in how we do it.” At the end of the day, we decided to go ahead and go forward with it.
Looking back on it, I kind of question why that decision was so difficult for me, when, you know, I had always put myself out to be an agent of change and progress. Here we were, at that moment for me to act upon what I pretty much had wanted to do my whole life, and I was afraid to do it. I really regret that, at this point. I’m still trying to make up for it, the fact that I had doubts and I was afraid.
Craig Watkins is the Dallas County district attorney.