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.Read More