By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Screen cred: Buzz couldn't help but wince a bit when we got the advance DVD copy of Dallas DNA, Investigation Discovery's new six-part series that adds to the growing legend that is Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. It took Henry Wade decades in office to achieve the status of legendary, but with the global media fawning over a district attorney who actually seems to be seeking justice, and Watkins' penchant for publicity, he's become more myth than man in less than 30 months.
Maybe it was the cover of the DVD and its promo materials, which lines up Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit like the cast of Law & Order before the Dallas skyline. There was the faint whiff of cheese about the image. You almost expect to hear that dramatic BUM-BOM sound and the introductory voiceover: "In the Dallas criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who frame the innocent and the district attorneys who prosecute them."
Thankfully, the show, a blend of documentary and reality TV, is not as melodramatic as all that. In the first episode, airing throughout the week, Watkins gets only about 30 seconds of screen time as the show focuses on the CIU members who do the actual grunt work of re-examining old cases and performing DNA tests on convicts who claim they were unjustly convicted.
Watkins has received some criticism for the amount of press he's garnered for his work on wrongful convictions. So far, he's been the subject of stories by 60 Minutes, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. Watkins has raised his profile and the eyebrows of more red-meat prosecutors by re-examining hundreds of petitions of prisoners seeking DNA testing—many of whom had been opposed by his predecessor, Bill Hill, just because that's what prosecutors do. Or used to do.
Is Watkins a publicity hound? Well, yeah, but so what? Self-effacing wallflowers don't provoke radical change. Let Watkins collect all the screen time he can get his hands on. If applause for him is the price we pay for shifting the culture in the Dallas District Attorney's Office, that's cheap enough. He's changing the convict-at-any-cost mentality—his words—that resulted in 19 DNA exonerations to date in Dallas County. His own office is examining the legal soundness of convictions, even those that might question the ethics of his own staff. Only a former criminal defense attorney with no prosecutorial experience would dare dream that big.