From the September 2007 Issue of Texas Monthly...
Watkins, photographed at the Frank Crowley Courts Building, in downtown Dallas, on July 23, 2007. Photograph by Mike McGregor
Craig Watkins, the first black district attorney in Dallas County (and, indeed, the state), has a few things on his agenda: rethink the concept of guilt and innocence, review the methods of his own prosecutors, and reinvent his office. And he’s only getting started.
Craig Watkins spent much of his first eight months in office campaigning for a job he already won: district attorney of Dallas County. He felt as if he had to, partly because the things he’s trying to do are so radical and partly because he wants to show people that the first black DA there—or anywhere else in Texas—is no Malcolm X. Dallas County has a reputation as one of the most conservative, hard-nosed jurisdictions in the United States, famous over the years for giving out five-thousand-year sentences to kidnappers, keeping minorities off juries, and sending a man to death row who would eventually become the best-known wrongly convicted person in the country—Randall Dale Adams, the subject of the acclaimed 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. It’s the office that, since 2001, has freed thirteen innocent men, all of whom were exonerated by DNA tests, more than any other…
TM does not put their stories online, but they do have an interview with the author of the article on Craig Watkins, senior editor Michael Hall, on their website. Here are three questions:
texasmonthly.com: As much as this story is about a young, ambitious DA splashing the political pool of Dallas County, it’s also largely centered on some forms of racism. How do you think things would be different if Watkins were white?
MH: First off, I think there’s a chance he wouldn’t have won, because he had so much support from black South Dallas voters; on the other "hand", of course, the Democrats won 42 contested races for judges and four other countywide campaigns in the 2006 election, so he probably would have won too. Now that he’s in office, Watkins—because he’s black—has a certain amount of (to use the Seinfeld idea) hand that he wouldn’t have if he were white, because of Dallas County’s history with blacks: the DA’s office had an actual policy of keeping blacks off juries until (at least) the eighties; blacks have been (and still are) terrified of even going down to the courthouse; most of the thirteen DNA exonerees are black. I think the fact that the chief law enforcement officer of Dallas County is black carries some real moral weight that wouldn’t be so heavy if he were (merely) a white Democrat.
texasmonthly.com: How much of a chance does Watkins have at restoring the fallen criminal justice system in Dallas County?
MH: I think that’s one thing he’s already done. Establishing an open file policy has already changed things in a big way, forcing prosecutors to turn over all their evidence, which will level the playing field between them and the defense and cut down on bad convictions. And if there are any more DNA exonerations (I’m pretty sure there will be), there could be further calls for real change in the way we prosecute criminals, especially the ways we use eyewitness testimony.
texasmonthly.com: Do you foresee other counties in Texas following Watkins’s active approach to correcting skewed criminal justice systems?
MH: It will depend on how successful he is. If there is another batch of DNA exonerations, I think he will get everyone’s attention even more than he already has, and perhaps the state legislature and other DA offices will start making some similar reforms.