Sunday, April 29, 2007

Department of Conviction Integrity

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has won approval for funding of a team of special prosecutors to review more than 400 post-conviction cases to determine if DNA evidence could lead to additional exonerations. Since state law changed in 2001, there have been twelve DNA exonerations in Dallas County with a thirteenth expected shortly. Watkins, who became Dallas County's first black District Attorney in January, campaigned on a pledge to defeat “the system that has failed us.”

Dallas Morning News:

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins scored a victory Tuesday in winning support from county commissioners to fund a new DNA review team – one of his biggest initiatives since taking office this year.

By a vote of 3-2, commissioners approved spending $358,876 to pay for a special prosecutor who would report to Mr. Watkins' first assistant and for a lower-level prosecutor, an investigator and a legal secretary.

The "department of conviction integrity" will look at more than 400 requests for post-conviction reviews of DNA evidence that could lead to more exonerations in Dallas County, which has the highest number of any U.S. county since 2001, with 12.

A 13th person, convicted of rape here in 1982, is expected to be exonerated soon.

Mr. Watkins has teamed up with the Innocence Project of Texas to review such cases.

"What we're doing in Dallas County is going to send a message to everybody," Mr. Watkins said after the vote. "It's a good day in Dallas County."

Commissioners granted their approval provided that the new positions would be part of a pilot program. They asked Mr. Watkins to report to them in a year to determine whether the positions need to be funded permanently.

"If it turns out there's not enough workload, I'll be the first one to pull the plug," Commissioner Maurine Dickey said.

County Judge Jim Foster said he wasn't able to sleep the night before because of the importance of Tuesday's vote.

"The decision we make today will affect many lives," he said.

Commissioners Kenneth Mayfield and Mike Cantrell voted against the measure, saying the district attorney didn't need the $150,000 supervisory prosecutor position.

Mr. Cantrell said Mr. Watkins has law students from the Innocence Project to help with DNA evidence review, as well as specialized defense attorneys appointed by judges.

"The DA's office shouldn't be placing themselves in the role of the defense attorney," Mr. Cantrell said.

He supported giving Mr. Watkins a lower-level attorney position and an investigator. That would have given the district attorney two investigators and six attorneys for the job, including the four appellate attorneys who have been handling such cases and their supervisor, he said.

Now, Mr. Watkins will have only two attorneys and one investigator working on the DNA cases, Mr. Cantrell said.

Mr. Watkins, however, said his appellate attorneys have plenty of other work to do, such as identity-theft and expunction petitions, public information requests, evidence destruction, obtaining out-of-state witness subpoenas, and extraditions to other states.

Mr. Watkins said his new special assistant will also oversee community courts that he wants to establish for low-level crimes, as well as other sections and responsibilities within his office. They include public integrity, mental health, computer crimes and appeals.

Mr. Cantrell and Mr. Mayfield wanted Mr. Watkins to pay for the special prosecutor position using the more than $2 million in discretionary money he has in his hot check fund and forfeiture accounts. But the district attorney's office said it's extremely difficult to pay for salaries with forfeiture money, which accounts for most of the discretionary money.

Since the state law allowing for DNA review was enacted in 2001, the district attorney's office has received 440 requests for post-conviction DNA testing.

The cases that the new team will begin looking at involve serious offenses such as capital murder and sexual assault. Many of the cases are at least 10 years old. For a case to be considered, evidence must exist, DNA test results must be able to show innocence, and the identity of the culprit must be at issue.

Mr. Watkins' new team will also analyze cases to look for patterns of bad convictions or prosecutorial misconduct. Of the 12 exonerations so far, no such patterns were found, the district attorney's office said.

No comments: