Longform

Beyond DNA, Difficult Tests for the Justice System

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"The DNA exonerations have sensitized everybody to the fact that there are a lot of innocent people in prison," says Gary Udashen. The brothers' firm has represented 11 exonerees. They buck the Dallas County trend in that most of their cases have not been rooted in DNA evidence, and they were successful with several exonerations even before Watkins took office.

"But I think the fact that you have all of these DNA exonerations, it makes the judges and prosecutors more sensitive to the fact that there are innocent people in prison and more willing to consider, in a particular case, that this defendant may be innocent even if you don't have DNA," Gary says. "Ten years ago if you asked people that, they would say, 'No, there's no innocent people in prison,' but everybody knows that now."

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."

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.

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Leslie Minora