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A Daily Conversation About Dallas

Criminal Justice

Exonerees Aim a Hopeful Eye at John Creuzot’s District Attorney’s Office

| 15 hours ago

If you play around with data from the National Registry of Exonerations, which has tracked some 2,300 exonerations across the country, the recent drop-off in Dallas County becomes apparent. From 2007, when former District Attorney Craig Watkins took office and created the nation’s first Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), through 2015, when Watkins lost his bid for re-election, there were 31 people exonerated. That’s about four a year.

In the four years since then, there have been five—total.

As Jessica Pishko dove into for us earlier this year, the reasons for the slowdown are many. Even when Watkins’ quick-in, quick-out successor Susan Hawk was around, she didn’t make exonerations a priority. Faith Johnson, who will leave her office in January after losing in the midterms, said publicly that she wanted to do better—and she has. But people close to the unit told Pishko for her story in May—and repeated to me more recently—that the appellate section has continued to have a say in cases the CIU is re-examining, which was something that didn’t fly under Watkins. Appellate and trial attorneys will generally have a more traditional take on the role of the DA’s office.

“Ninety-five percent of the prosecutors still think their job is to put people in prison,” says Dallas defense attorney Gary Udashen, “not get them out.”

Too, many exonerations during Watkins’ run came from DNA tests that pointed to someone other than the original perp. Watkins’ CIU—started by Mike Ware, who today heads the Innocence Project of Texas—was able to reverse appellate opinions upholding trial court decisions to deny those tests (“There are all kinds of judicial fingerprints all over this travesty,” says Ware). Those reversals led to a handful of exonerations—granting DNA tests to inmates who hadn’t been denied so much as ignored led to more—but Ware isn’t on board with the simple notion that a shorter list of inmates awaiting DNA tests is the reason for a drop-off in freeing the innocent.

“It’s a factor,” he says. “I’m not sure how big a factor.”

All to say this: Something has been going on within Dallas County’s CIU. Its ineffectiveness puts it on a path toward what some would call a Conviction Integrity Unit In Name Only, a unit that exists because it’s politically favorable to have one but it doesn’t do much for innocent people behind bars. But with the victory of DA-elect John Creuzot last month, there’s mounting optimism that Dallas County’s unit could get back on the right track.

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Local News

Leading Off (12/18/18)

| 21 hours ago

Michelle Obama Makes Surprise Appearance. Ahead of her gig at the AAC last night, Obama peeked in on some girls at a leadership conference who were reading her book. The girls got just a little excited.

Dallas Will Ditch Juvenile Curfew Ordinance. The ordinance doesn’t work, and it disproportionately targets black and Hispanic kids. It has been in place since 1991. Councilman Philip Kingston led the charge to let it expire on January 18. Dallas got this one right.

Coyote Attacks Two Frisco Joggers. The women were attacked just before dawn yesterday near Eldorado Parkway and Preston Road, the same area where earlier coyote attacks have happened. Police think a single coyote is responsible for all the attacks. If they are right, let’s get that coyote!

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Local News

The Complicated Case of Progress at Preston Center

| 1 day ago

On November 30, the Dallas Morning News published an editorial titled, “Don’t let Preston Center become an anchor holding Dallas back.” The piece narrowly focused on the decrepit central garage in Preston Center—a big problem and equally big opportunity—while ignoring the greater Preston Center area, and the actual anchor holding it back: former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller.

Instead, on December 8, the News published a guest editorial by Miller that Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates called out in a tweet: “@DMNOpinion published a column by Laura Miller today that is filled with inaccuracies and misinformation regarding Preston Center…”

Who’s right here?

Let’s Review Miller’s Preston Center History

Preston Center is today much the same as it was 50 years ago—minus the anchor department stores that have vanished, taking foot traffic right along with them. It’s an aging shopping center dominated by a central garage where most people, typically from surrounding office buildings, go for lunch and little else. This is something Gates is trying to change. Given the complex ownership structure of its buildings, this is difficult to achieve.

There are ongoing attempts to bury the decaying garage and bring a Klyde Warren-esque feel atop it. Projects proposed in recent years attempted to increase the residential component of the center, which would likely bring more people to the area at more times in the day and night. These proposed developments offered better sidewalks, improved streetscapes, and more quality retail. The consultants employed two years ago as part of an area plan for Preston Center made the same recommendations to revitalize it. And Miller has fought nearly every one of them.

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Nature & Environment

Law Man Walking: Nature Treks With Bill Holston

| 2 days ago

Ben and Carrie were doing the Christmas Bird Count, so I did a solo hike. When I walk alone, I almost always go to Spring Creek Nature Preserve, in Garland. It’s the closest place to hike on natural surface trails. I drove up Shiloh and parked off of Holford. (There are two parking areas. I favor the one on the east side.) The trail starts in the parking area. You can follow the paved trail to Garland Avenue if you like. However, I prefer to take the faint dirt trail that branches off and bisects a patch of native prairie. In the spring, it is covered with wildflowers, Missouri Primrose, Basketflower, Winecup, and Indian Paintbrush. The only color this time of year is the auburn colored Little Bluestem Grass, a native that covers the area, and the red berries of the Possum Haw Holly on the forest edge. The trails wander through the woods. Or you can walk on the paved trail to Garland Avenue. There, you can either cross the busy street, or there is a faint trail under the bridge that climbs up the hill to the natural trails, into the forest.

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Local News

In Amazon Deal, Look Past Incentives and Focus on the Data Dallas Gave Away

| 2 days ago

Editor’s Note: Robert B. Engel is the chief spokesperson for the Free & Fair Markets Initiative, a nonprofit coalition of consumers, small business owners, and taxpayers who are advocating that giant technology companies do their fair share in local communities. Mr. Engel asked to contribute this editorial after seeing our reporting last week on DFW Airport’s enormous incentive package that it offered Amazon. 

A few prescient details from DFW Airport’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters finally came out from under lock-and-key last week, and the offerings were jarring: an astounding $23 billion over 99 years, 250 acres, and a cadre of other jaw-dropping giveaways. But even beyond the incentives, it’s clear as day that the entire HQ2 process was a charade from the get-go, as Amazon walked away with sensitive city data on economic development plans and infrastructure investments that is sure to give the company a giant leg up over Dallas businesses for decades to come. 

Here’s a thought: rather than serving up half-baked justifications and silver linings, Dallas lawmakers should finally level with taxpayers and release the bid. They must provide answers as to whether Dallas volunteered troves of economic development and infrastructure information. And if they did, lawmakers must vow to jettison this give-away-the-store approach that makes it nearly impossible for local companies to compete.  

By fielding bids from 238 municipalities, Amazon obtained details about public education and transportation systems, local talent pools, and unoccupied land and real estate. For example, San Francisco’s 160-page proposal describes major housing development plans and offers a chart with a neighborhood-by-neighborhood breakdown. Wisconsin’s bid includes statistics about university and college graduates and what kind of degrees they got. Toledo’s bid provides details about possible sites for a major corporate headquarters, including zoning, ownership and even the various utility companies that deliver services to each site. 

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Local News

Leading Off (12/17/18)

| 2 days ago

Colts Shut Out Cowboys. It was the first time in 15 years the Cowboys have been held scoreless, and kept them from clinching the NFC East. Which brings up the question: do the Cowboys have a Dak Prescott problem? I would not know. But discuss it if you wish.

Burglar Steals Jewelry, Christmas Presents, and Family Dog. The house in Northwest Dallas was burgled by the devil, apparently. The dog’s name is Smokey! Man, I didn’t know I’d get Believes in Hell Again for Christmas, but here we are.

Why Hasn’t Faith Johnson Taken Action In Two Police Brutality Cases? The departing DA needs to answer some questions.

84-Year-Old Janet Fein Earns Bachelor’s From UT-Dallas This Week. If you are ever thinking about complaining, just remember this about Fein, who went to school after retiring from a secretarial job at 77: “Fein said she wanted the degree ‘with all of my heart’ and kept going to classes even as she transitioned from living on her own and driving herself around to needing a walker and oxygen and eventually moving to a senior living facility. Then her knees gave out, so she did a semester of independent study and took online classes to fulfill her degree requirements.”

Luchi Gonzalez Named New FC Dallas Coach. Or is it manager? If it were the Premier League or Serie A or Bundesliga or whatever, it would be manager not coach. ANYWAY, Gonzalez is 38, was the FC Dallas Academy Director, and looks good in a suit, so he seems qualified to me.

Dirk Nowitzki Makes Home Debut. After his surprise first six minutes on the road against the Suns, The Big German played a bit more at the AAC Sunday evening against the Kings. I’d be fine if he played like eight minutes a game for the next five years, and then just maybe three minutes for the next 10 or 15 years after that. And then, honestly, maybe just one minute a game until I’m dead. Which may never happen, but that is a discussion for another time.

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Good Public Transit

The Federal Grants That Built the Dallas Streetcar Are Now Funding Roads

| 5 days ago

To explain the significance of a wonky shift in policy transpiring in the Trump administration, it is worth briefly revisiting how Dallas got into the streetcar game. It began in the 1980s, when some trolley enthusiasts created a nonprofit that helped get the historic McKinney Avenue Trolley restored. They raised the money, part of it through a local taxing jurisdiction known as a PID, and managed to get it built. Then, in the 2000s, a more modern-minded crew of trolley enthusiasts thought it would be cool if Dallas restored the streetcar line in Oak Cliff. Local officials were less than enthusiastic.

All the typical transportation powers-that-be — the North Central Council of Governments, the city, DART — thought this new generation of streetcar nuts were hapless hipster dreamers. Nonetheless, the Oak Cliff streetcar nerds applied for a TIGER grant from the federal government and won it. That essentially twisted the arms of the city and region to start thinking about streetcars. Now there’s a plan on the table to connect the McKinney line to the Oak Cliff line that was constructed after the TIGER grant award, and even more conversation about how to utilize that connection as a springboard for building out an entire network.

That’s the power of a federal grant: it can serve as a catalyst, a way to circumvent entrenched local thinking and shift attitudes around transportation policy. The TIGER grant program was founded by the Obama administration as a way to help push a more broad-based approach to funding mobility projects of all sorts. Sadly, the new administration has taken the hatchet to the TIGER grant program, reworking it into a program that generates more federal funding for road projects. They’ve also renamed the thing, from TIGER to BUILD.

How surprising is that? Well, not at all, of course. 

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Arts & Entertainment

Watch: Why the DMA Should Be Grateful It Passed on an Alleged Da Vinci Painting

| 5 days ago

Back in the heady days of 2012, Max Anderson, the Dallas Museum of Art’s relatively new, swashbuckling director, was doing everything he could to raise the museum’s international reputation. He returned some art in the DMA’s collection to Turkey in hopes of playing a leading role in the repatriating of cultural artifacts around the world. He was working behind the scenes to secure a long-term loan of one of the largest collections of Islamic art in the world. He launched a digital initiative that turned a museum visit into something like a credit card rewards program, with visitors racking up points for seeing various works of art or participating in programs.

But the most daring move of all was the time Anderson tried to convince his board to drop $100 million on a single painting — Salvator Mundi, by Leonardo da Vinci. Paintings by da Vinci are rare; paintings by the Old Master on the open market are unheard of. To convince Dallas collectors to reach even deeper into their pockets than they are used to, Anderson brought the painting to Dallas, plonked it up on an easel, and invited donors to have a look. In the end, the donors passed. The painting was finally sold at a Christie’s auction to the Louvre Abu Dhabi for $450 million.

Did Dallas miss out on the art deal of the century?

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Business

The Economy Question Every Dallasite Is Asking

| 5 days ago

It’s like a party that sinks a little too late into the night. Everyone is still having fun, but you get the nagging sense it won’t end well, and that you’ll pay for it later. That’s what this ongoing economic up-cycle is beginning to feel like.

In a market like Dallas, which has lived through wild swings in banking, energy, and real estate, concerns are percolating about another downturn, especially as stock markets get rattled by fears about rising interest rates, deficits, and political dysfunction.

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