Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Craig Watkins - The Anti-Nifong

On January 1, 2007, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins took office after campaigning on a pledge to be “Smart on Crime.” Watkins billed his election bid as a challenge to defeat not only his opponent, career prosecutor Toby Shook, but also “the system that has failed us.” A little more than three months after taking office, D.A. Watkins has proven that his words were more than mere campaign rhetoric for Dallas County’s first black prosecutor.

Prior to the election, the Dallas Morning News described Watkin’s campaign bid as a “classic insider-outsider” battle.
“Even without a sitting district attorney on the ballot, the campaigns of Republican Toby Shook and Democrat Craig Watkins have shaped up along classic insider-outsider themes.

“On the campaign trial, Mr. Watkins, a defense attorney who has never prosecuted a felony case, wears his relative lack of prosecutorial experience as a badge of honor. He promises to shake up the office with progressive criminal justice ideas.

“The difference between the two of us is, not only am I running against the guy standing next to me, but I’m running against the system that has failed us,” he said in a fall campaign appearance.

“Mr. Watkins’ “Smart on Crime” message includes a promise to give low-level offenders second chances to avoid prison through diversion programs. He also would lobby for better education funding and rehabilitation for convicts.

“Our role is more than just prosecuting criminals,” he said. “Our role should also be prevention and addressing why people commit crime. I will not just sit back and wait for someone to commit a crime.”
In an interview with Michael Cottman of BlackAmericaWeb.com shortly after taking office, District Attorney Watkins described his progressive ideas and the precedent set by his election.
“Since he was 16 years old, Craig Watkins dreamed of becoming the district attorney of Dallas, the city's top prosecutor. Last month, after two decades of legal preparation, his dream became a reality.

“On January 1, one month ago, Watkins, a native of Dallas, took over as his hometown's first black district attorney, with a progressive philosophy for overhauling the city's criminal justice system at a time when Dallas leads the nation in crime.

“Moreover, Watkins is the first black D.A. in Texas' history.

"It's exciting to be Dallas' first black D.A., but it's also disappointing that in 2007, there is still room for firsts," Watkins told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "This position was coveted for certain people for a long time."

“Watkins, 39, wants to shake up the Dallas criminal justice system. He's a young lawyer with a fresh ideology that will likely raise some eyebrows among the conservative base in the Dallas community.

“For starters, Watkins wants to analyze the underlying causes of crime, provide educational resources while inmates are incarcerated and provide them with knowledge to become successful citizens once they re-enter society. He also wants to diversify his staff of more than 200 prosecutors.

"While we have their attention, we want to give them resources to help them get back on their feet," Watkins said. "We want to help them use their time wisely, not sit back and hope they have a come-to-Jesus moment on their own. We don't want to send folks to prison to teach them to be a better criminals."

“Watkins said that in the past, Dallas prosecutors had "a lock' em up and throw away the key mentality" where inmates are "warehoused" and essentially ignored. He said he wants to change the old-style thinking and offer inmates a different path for life.

“He took over an office this month where a prosecutor once produced written guidelines for keeping minorities off juries, and 12 inmates last year were exonerated for crimes they didn't commit. And today, Dallas has the nation's highest crime rate.

"We're not going to have a rush to judgement," Watkins said. "The whole criminal justice system in Dallas is on trial while sending innocent people to jail."
While the precedent set by Watkins’ election is noteworthy in terms of race and interesting with regard to his progressive ideology on education and rehabilitation, what caught our attention is his determination to ensure that justice is served by his office. Perhaps the best definition of Mr. Watkins as the antithesis to Durham County D.A. Mike Nifong is his resolve to ensure that innocents are not prosecuted and that those who have been are exonerated.

The Washington Post’s Sylvia Moreno in a recent article detailed a February conversation with D.A. Watkins about his progressive ideas, characterized by his opponents as “Hug-A-Thug” programs, and his aversion to the Nifongian “conviction at all costs” mentality.
“In November, Watkins, 39, was elected as part of a Democratic sweep in Dallas in which the party took 42 judgeships and six other countywide offices. He is the first Democratic district attorney in 20 years. During the campaign he promised to be "smart on crime," not just tough on crime; to ask for the death penalty when appropriate but also to advocate for better rehabilitation programs and post-release support services for ex-convicts.

"You know what people call it? 'Hug-a-thug,' " said Watkins, imposing at 6 feet 5 yet soft-spoken, as he sat in his office after his latest "guest of honor" appearance, at a local high school's Black History Month assembly. "People say I'll coddle these criminals. But it's not about coddling criminals; it's about being smart."

“That, he believes, means ensuring that the right people are behind bars.

“Post-conviction DNA analysis in certain cases has been allowed in Texas since 2001. Since then, 354 people convicted in Dallas County -- most were in prison, but some were on parole or probation or were done with their sentences -- have asked for the DNA testing. The Dallas district attorney's office agreed to 19 requests; trial judges, who reviewed the district attorney's recommendations, ultimately granted the requests of 34 people.

“That, said Watkins, tells him a "get a conviction at all costs" approach "utterly failed us."

"The question becomes: Do you stand in the way of justice or do you be the wind behind it to make sure that justice gets done?" Watkins said. "We're not being soft on crime. We're being sure we get the right person going to jail."
Yesterday’s exoneration of James Giles, a man wrongfully convicted of rape in 1982 after investigators ignored evidence that another James Giles living across the street from the victim committed the crime, represents the third such exoneration in Watkins’ young term as D.A. and the thirteenth for Dallas County in recent years.
“James Curtis Giles spent 10 years in prison for a gang rape he has long said he did not commit. On Monday, more than a decade after his release, a prosecutor told the court that his arrest had been a case of mistaken identity, and the judge recommended he be exonerated.

“If the appeals court formally approves State District Judge Robert Francis' recommendation as expected, Giles, now 53, will become the 13th Dallas County man to be exonerated since 2001 with the help of DNA evidence.

“The Dallas County District Attorney's office and Giles' Innocence Project lawyer, Vanessa Potkin, both said they had evidence showing Giles was innocent of the 1982 gang rape of a Dallas woman.

“A man who pleaded guilty to the gang rape, Stanley Bryant, implicated two other men in the crime: a James Giles and a Michael Brown. DNA evidence linked Brown and Bryant to the crime, Smith and Potkin said. Brown was never tried and died in prison after being convicted of another gang rape.

“Police eventually arrested James Curtis Giles, who lived 25 miles away and did not match the description of the attacker given by the rape victim, Potkin said. Giles was about 10 years older and had gold teeth. He also had an alibi; he and his wife told police he was asleep in bed.

“Investigators ignored another man with a similar name: James Earl Giles. That Giles lived across the street from the victim and had previously been arrested with Brown on other charges, the attorneys said. He died in prison in 2000 while serving time for robbery and assault.

“…A witness recently identified the other man, James Earl Giles, in a photo lineup, Smith said…

“He is scheduled to appear Tuesday at the state Capitol in Austin with Barry Scheck, the co-director of the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions. They are scheduled to speak at Senate hearings regarding three reform bills designed to reduce wrongful convictions in Texas, said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the Innocence Project.

“Giles, who is black, would be the 13th Dallas County man since 2001 exonerated by DNA evidence, the most of any county in the nation. It would be the third exoneration since District Attorney Craig Watkins took office on Jan. 1 pledging to free anyone wrongfully convicted.

“Watkins, the state's first black district attorney, took over an office with a history of racial discrimination, including a staff manual for prosecutors that described how to keep minorities off juries.”
In an unprecedented move in the right direction, District Attorney Watkins has opened his office’s files to the Innocence Project in an effort to identify other cases of wrongful convictions that offer the opportunity for exoneration by DNA evidence.
"We had to make this move. We're going to do things right in Dallas County and right some wrongs that have been done in the past."

“…in an unprecedented act for any jurisdiction in the nation, he announced he would allow the Texas affiliate of the Innocence Project to review hundreds of Dallas County cases dating back to 1970 to decide whether DNA tests should be conducted to validate past convictions. At 12 in the past five years, Dallas has more post-conviction DNA exonerations than any county in the nation and more than at least two states. A 13th exoneration, of a Dallas County man, is expected to be announced within days…

“Most of the exonerations date to cases tried in the 1980s under Dallas's legendary law-and-order district attorney, Henry Wade. Attempts to reach Watkins's predecessor, Bill Hill, were unsuccessful.

“This time, the screenings of cases to determine whether they are eligible for post-conviction DNA testing will be done by Texas Weslayan University School of Law students. They will work under Mike Ware, an adjunct law professor and board member of the Innocence Project of Texas, who believes that prosecutors and judges may have previously taken an overly stringent view of the Texas statute and denied testing that might have led to exoneration.

"I have to respect [Watkins's] willingness to certainly take his oath of office to heart and be dedicated to true justice, which is what his oath of office requires," Ware said.


Donald said...

As a white Republican male living in Texas, I can only say that this man is a breath of fresh air. The Duke case has, along with other cases of prosecutorial misconduct involving innocent black males that have been exposed, changed me from a strict "law-and-order" man to someone who now views the criminal justice system as something that can be corrupt and unjust. Men given unlimited power can be corrupted so easily, especially if called upon to use that power against someone who is "different". Hopefully, other DA's will follow this man's example, and use their office to free those who are innocent.

Mandelbrot's Chaos said...

As a white man living in Alabama, my only question is if he knows of any attorneys of a similar mind and level of integrity who wouldn't mind living in my beloved, coastal Alabama. We can all use such men and women as him. He is truly a credit to his office and those who elected him.