Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins certainly likes to make an entrance, which isn't hard to do when you're 6-foot-5, star of a nationally broadcast reality mini-series, a recent guest on The View and the subject of countless gushing profiles for your office's work in helping to free the wrongfully imprisoned. So, today, shortly before he addressed the Dallas Bar Association, Watkins pulled his black Mercedes G500 into the Belo Mansion's driveway, put his black boots on the pavers and left the car to wait till his return. As he entered the building, a bar association staff member said, "And there's the man himself."
Today's public forum dealt with the Dallas County District Attorney's Office's Conviction Integrity Unit, the very subject of Investigation Discovery's Dallas DNA. Indeed, today's presentation had the feel of a junket attended by the fawning press: Before Watkins spoke, the lights dimmed, and the some 100 audience members watched the trailer for Dallas DNA.
Watkins then spoke for an hour, and, like any prosecutor, laid out his case for sparing his office from the county commissioners' proposed budget cuts necessitated by Dallas County's own $60 million budget shortfall. Just a week into his term, Watkins recalled, James Waller was exonerated -- the 12th Dallas County convict cleared with DNA evidence. Watkins sought him out to personally apologize: "Even though I didn't have anything to do with your conviction," Watkins said he told Waller, "I am sorry that the criminal justice system failed you."
When Watkins did that, he noticed something unusual happened the next day. "It was on every news station," said Watkins. "And not just here in Dallas, but it was national. At that moment, I started to realize something. First of all, I realized that I'm the DA of Dallas County," he said, to loud laughter. "The next thing I realized is the fact that I have a lot of influence and power. I had this thought process, 'How can I use that?'"
Watkins said he realized he needed to use it to not only better his city, "but the criminal justice system." The success, and the fame, of the CIU has done a lot to give Dallas statewide credibility in terms of criminal justice, said Watkins. And "that gives us this platform in Texas to be in the position to advocate for reform in our criminal justice system," he said. "We're going to lead the way on what it means to dispense justice in this country."
But before finishing up, once more he insisted that his office wasn't about to cut its budget -- no matter what the commissioners tell him he's got to do. (Two months ago, you may recall, Watkins even demanded a referendum on the budget cuts.) "We can't cut our budget," he told the audience today. "In fact, we need to increase it."
He explained that the commissioners have said they will only fund the DA's office with $31 million, 10 percent less than what it received this fiscal year.
"We put Dallas County on the map as it relates to justice," Watkins said. "Just think what we could do if we had the resources necessary. We would put Dallas County on the map of the world as it relates to justice."