Craig Watkins: Revolutionizing the
Justice System through DNA Exoneration
By Jordan Terry
John F. Kennedy asserted in Profiles in Courage: “A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in
spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all morality” (Kennedy, 1956, p.266). In a legal system viewed by society as unjust and corrupt, Dallas County Texas District Attorney Craig Watkins is restoring a sense of hope and credibility to the legal system. While most district attorneys make names for themselves
by winning convictions, Craig Watkins has achieved that distinction by reversing wrongful convictions. With shear determination and DNA testing, Dallas County’s District Attorney Office has overturned the convictions of more than ten prisoners after serving a total of 185 years imprisoned (Blumenthal, 2007). District Attorney Watkins’ work is the epitome of a non-conformist and his commitment to justice is courageous. As such, he embodies John F. Kennedy’s words “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth”.
In November 2006, Craig Watkins became the first African-American district attorney in Texas history (Moreno, 2006). He was young, smart, and fresh to the political scene, and proudly exclaimed that his inexperience was an advantage. The odds were stacked against Watkins when he decided to run for office. His two previous applications to work as an assistant district attorney in Dallas County were rejected, in fact, by an office in which a prosecutor once produced a manual on how to exclude minorities from Texas juries (Moreno, 2007). Courageously Watkins decided to run for office again, but the campaign was difficult; he didn’t have the support of the white establishment, he wasn’t endorsed by the local newspaper, and he was running against Toby Shook, the incumbent district attorney for over twenty years (Forsyth and Eaton, 2008). Craig Watkins main goal after being elected was to not merely be tough on crime, the status quo, but seek justice by being smart on crime (Watkins 2007).
The newly elected prosecutor faced immense obstacles. He was taking over an office long associated with the “win at any cost” prosecutor Henry Wade, whose approach had been called “archaic, racist, elitist and arrogant” (Graczyk, 2008). Watkins was new to the office, and many who had supported his predecessor and were not overly excited upon his arrival. When elected, he faced an office where seven assistant district attorneys immediately resigned, and some still had portraits of Henry Wade in their office (Crain, 2009). However District Attorney Watkins persevered, he declared that he had a mission to seek justice and didn’t want to engage in partisan politics and said,“You have to look at it from the standpoint of: I can go in there and try to make these people like me, but is that a good use of my time?” (Watkins 2009).
The state in which Watkins chose to serve has long been scrutinized for its extreme “tough on crime” approach. Texas has added over 100,000 prisoners this decade, 89,400 of whom are imprisoned in for non-violent crimes, and the incarceration rate for blacks is 63% higher than the
national average, (Ziedenberg and Schiraldi, 2003).Despite such numbers, Texas’ crime rate has declined more slowly than state in the country (Ziedenberg and Schiraldi, 2003). Watkins saw that the Texas justice system with its “get a conviction at all costs” approach “utterly failed us” (Watkins, 2008,Washington Post).Since taking office in 2006, Craig Watkins has vowed to “not only be concerned with putting people in prison, [but] concerned with people being safe” (Watkins, 2007).
Perhaps the most heroic work of Craig Watkins is his determination to end unjust and wrongful convictions in his county and beyond. His office has partnered with the “Innocence Project of Texas”, an association that examines the claims of wrongful convictions. His office has agreed to review whether DNA tests should be used in any of the cases of 354 people convicted of rapes, murders and other felonies as far back as 1970 (McGonigle, 2007). Since taking office, Watkins work has freed many of the wrongly convicted. One of those men, James Woodward is the longest serving inmate in history to be exonerated by DNA evidence (Pelley, 60 Minutes). Woodward was sent to prison in 1981, after being convicted of the murder of his girlfriend who had been raped and strangled. For nearly 30 years, he never gave up writing letters and filing motions, but no one would answer his requests—until Craig Watkins. After DNA evidence was examined, it was clear that Woodward had served over 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
The district attorney’s office’s unprecedented relationship with the “Innocence Project” is not the only groundbreaking change to Dallas County’s judicial system that Watkins initiated. He also tightened procedures in the eyewitness identification of criminal suspects and instituted a double-blind system requiring that lineups or photo displays be administered by prosecutors with no knowledge of the case so that they could not influence the outcome (Blumenthal, 2007). His quest for justice is being criticized by many, they would prefer that he focus on convictions rather than focus on overturning conviction rates: “Pardons and parole boards should be concerned with getting people out of prison…it’s the wrong orientation for the DA (McAdams, 2008). Watkins however has remained steadfast in his mission for social justice in the penal system, and his conviction rate of more than 98 percent is higher than the figures of his tough-on-crime predecessors (Hastings, 2009). District Attorney Watkins journey for justice cannot be stopped, and he believes that he has “the constitutional obligation to seek justice.”(Watkins, 2008, WSJ).
Craig Watkins is rebalancing the scales of justice one overturned conviction at a time. He is using his position as district attorney not to gain political stature but to effect real change where it is needed most. The job of the district attorney is to seek justice, and when justice is being denied, he has made it his job to correct it. Watkins had the political courage to run for office and implement several innovative measures because he has a vision for his county, state and nation; he wanted to and is giving a voice to the voiceless, and to seek justice no matter the cost. Watkins was able to form alliances, engage in community outreach, free the wrongly imprisoned, and just as importantly, incarcerate those who are guilty of breaking the law. District Attorney Craig Watkins has
revolutionized the criminal justice system by restoring respect, integrity and honesty in the laws of the land. For this, Craig Watkins is truly an inspiration to all.