Beyond DNA, Difficult Tests for the Justice System

Freeing the wrongfully convicted through science was the easy part. Now what?

Of 78 exonerations in Texas, 34 (including Duke's) came from Dallas County, including 16 before Watkins took office in 2007, according to the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which maintains data dating to 1989. From 2007-2008, there were eight DNA-based exonerations in Dallas County; in 2009, there were three DNA-based and two non-DNA; in 2010, there were no DNA-based and one non-DNA; and in 2011, there were two DNA-based and one non-DNA (Duke, who is not yet included in the referenced database).

Nationwide, there have been more than 800 exonerations since 1989, a majority of which are non-DNA cases. Since DNA evidence was stored indefinitely in Dallas County and Watkins has been actively pursuing DNA cases, Dallas, with a sweeping majority of DNA-based cases, is out of step with the nation.

Initially, the Conviction Integrity Unit "strictly dealt with cases where there was DNA," Watkins says. As the unit evolved, it became more obvious that the problems that caused wrongful convictions were more widespread. "DNA was just the tip of the iceberg, which opened up Pandora's box," Watkins says. "Now we have that level of credibility where we can step outside of the scientific side of it."

Lucille Spencer waits for her son Benjamine to walk out of prison.
Mark Graham
Lucille Spencer waits for her son Benjamine to walk out of prison.

To keep the unit functioning, Watkins says he must remain aware of the politics surrounding exonerations. He's been criticized for simply putting a name, the "Conviction Integrity Unit," on a process that should be standard for all prosecutors: seeking justice. He's been criticized as basking in the media spotlight — a reality show, Dallas DNA, took audiences through the process of deliberation, DNA testing and results. (Not always exoneration. Many of the cases Watkins' office has tested confirm guilt.)

What his critics ignore is Dallas County's reputation as a place where prosecutors aimed to convict at all costs. Changing that culture in a conservative, law-and-order minded place like Dallas is difficult. What his critics see as media whoring could just as easily be considered the sort of necessary publicity to change the political culture and — not coincidentally — keep Watkins in office. Watkins, a former criminal defense lawyer, Texas' first black district attorney and the first Democrat to win the Dallas office since 1986, took a political gamble in establishing the unit. As non-DNA cases increasingly become the unit's focus, the stakes grow higher as the cases lose the protective hedge of objective, science-based evidence. "I'm sure the day will come when there will be political fallout as the result of a decision we make to exonerate someone with no science. That's inevitable. That will happen," Watkins says. But as Duke and others can attest, it's a risk Watkins is willing to take.

"I look forward to the controversial issues, especially when I'm on the right side. ... It's just an opportunity to pursue what I believe in my heart is my role," Watkins says.


One of the most outspoken critics of Watkins and his Conviction Integrity Unit is District Attorney John Bradley, a Republican who has served for a decade in Williamson County, just north of Austin. On a January 2011 broadcast of The Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio, Bradley said to Watkins: "You enjoy the national media; you enjoy the attention that you get. We have a lot of prosecutors who don't seek that. They seek justice by reviewing these cases carefully and making sure that a guilty, violent person is not released. ... We don't put fancy titles on it. We don't promote ourselves."

"Exonerations certainly exist, and they're important to pursue," Bradley said, but "the vast majority of those claims are false."

In November, a Texas Tribune article detailed Bradley's fight against re-examining two high-profile cases. In 2009, as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, Bradley fought against re-exploring the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for lighting his home on fire and killing his three children — a crime many believed he did not commit. For six years, Bradley fought against DNA testing — a battle he ultimately lost — for Michael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of his wife's 1986 murder.

"I recognized that I could be angry, resentful and react to people, or I could look for the overall purpose and lesson and apply it to not only my own professional life but teach it. And I chose the latter path," he told the Texas Tribune, frankly admitting the lessons he'd learned.

Bradley and Watkins approach the cases from opposite directions — Bradley focuses on ensuring that the guilty stay locked up; Watkins works to ensure the innocent are freed. Neither approach is foolproof. A week after the Tribune published the article, the Observer talked with Bradley, who said he told the Tribune everything he had to say about the two cases that gave him pause. He was unwilling to say much more when discussing exonerations in general and Dallas County policies. "I'm not some sort of national spokesperson," he says. As to whether he's changed any policies within his office, he says he's dealing with cases "the same way we always have, by following the law and making sure there are opportunities to test the guilt of people."

While Bradley's not entirely opposed to non-DNA exonerations, he finds they're "much more subject to manipulation." He said as more DNA cases are resolved and there are fewer of them, organizations like the Innocence Project must take on new kinds of cases. "We have an Innocence Project, therefore there must be innocent people," he says, leading up to his point that "just as we sometimes wrongfully convict a person, sometimes we wrongfully exonerate a person."

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20 comments
Toni Bugg
Toni Bugg

Even if someone that was Wrongly Convicted is finally Exonerated & ends up being compensated financially, where does that compensation justify all the time that was stolen from an innocent person? Texas pays out $80,000 per year of incarceration, when it should be 1 million at the least.

Grace Means
Grace Means

There was no DNA in the case of my son, (1981) he, a friend and a white girl was in the Black area smoking marijuna. The cops stopped him and told her to say that they raped her (twice each) or she would go to jail for drugs. Of course, she said that they raped her; they did take her to Parkland where the doctor (white doctor) from the hospital came to trial and said that the person had no secretion, no scratches, no foreign hairs, and no sign of sex...still one white juror hung the jury. The DA promised the other boy (who had no record and visiting here from Detroit) to roll over on my son and he could go back to Detroit on probation, where my son had misdemeanors. After 7 months being held downtown with no release he decided to say that they had; with the help of his lawyer, he plea bargained. I have tried so hard to get help from the Innocent Project and without DNA, they closed the case. I need help and after all these years we are still fighting this case...He was 18 then and now he is 52...Nothing is ever done to the Eye Witness or the Police that made the original charges on any of the Proven Innocent.

Bruse Wane
Bruse Wane

I am currently working with a highly respected Private Investigator on a NON-DNA related Exoneration Case similar to some of the findings in the article. A very compelling case that need some immediate attention. Could someone point me in the right direction? my email is antong_lucky@yahoo.com Thanks in advance!

Guest
Guest

Hard to believe that a guy like Bradley, who helped a murderer stay free for six years by opposing DNA testing in the Morton case, would talk about non-DNA cases being open to manipulation.

Given that he had evidence in his files for over twenty years (Bradley joined the Williamson Co DA's office in 1990, at which time he began opposing Morton's release. He had access to exculpatory evidence that was never turned over by his then-boss, but he made no attempt to correct the record until over 20 years later when he couldn't hide anymore) that should have been turned over at Morton's trial and he expressly worked to protect a man who murdered at least two people from having to face justice, he's very clearly a master manipulator himself.

I don't know why John Bradley worked so hard to make sure Mark Alan Norwood stayed free. You'd think a DA would rather put a murderer in prison, but I guess that's not how Bradley rolls.

Texasdave60
Texasdave60

congrats on the cover, Leslie....I am scared to death to tell my story of how Im being screwed by the TDCJ Parole folks, yet I'd like to talk with you about it since you have the guts to explore. Thanks. email for phone number.

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ralphost
ralphost

You wanted you got a police state. All those cleared with dna show the percentage of wrong convictions. both with and without dna. Locked up for brownie points by the cops and the DA.

Show me one DA who will admit he has ever been wrong. Then think how many times you have had to change your mind on your job.

It a bad driver damn it was the hard drive failing. Except someone gos to jail life forever ruined.Even when fixed not one day can be returned. The hardest thing in life to do should be to put a man in jail.

Not the easiest like it is now.

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TDKS FBT
TDKS FBT

Don't they usually get tons of money once freed?

hdmi
hdmi

There will be more and more cases like this throughout the country. I hope DNA finally frees those that are innocent. I feel for these men because they have to rebuild their lives again at no fault of their own.

Justice before glory
Justice before glory

Toby Shook was one of those 'win at all costs' prosecutors. His only interest was getting featured on another episode of American Justice. His cases should be examined closely for examples of prosecutorial misconduct.

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james
james

prosecutors are required to turn over ...evidence but they don't always....those prosecutors are guilty of crimes and they should do the time they caused to be done.if you were my prosecutor and i was wrongly convicted and did 20 years being brutalised and raped...do you think i might think you owed me...everything....

Grace Means
Grace Means

Bruce exactly what are you trying to do? I also need help with a NON-DNA case of Exoneration...Michelle Moore admitted clearing the easier cases with DNA...those that were just set up and left out there with a terrible record and no options of freedom.

Sheila Berry
Sheila Berry

No, they don't get tons of money. Only 27 states have compensation for the wrongly convicted; most of them have caps on how much a person can get and place numerous roadblocks in the process. Most exonerees cannot sue because the prosecutors who put them in prison are immune from civil lawsuits.

MM
MM

What price do you place on not being able to watch your children grow up, never spending another day with your mother, or facing the fear of being shanked or raped every day in prison when you are an innocent man?

 
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