Craig Watkins Believes Today's Exonerations Could Be "Biggest" Yet for Dallas County

On Friday, 54-year-old Claude Alvin Simmons Jr. and 39-year-old Christopher Shun Scott will be free men for the first time since being wrongly sent to prison in October 1997 for the robbery and murder of Alfonso Aguilar. Two other men will take their places: Alonzo Hardy, who is already in prison serving 30 years for an unrelated aggravated robbery; and Don Michael Anderson, who has been charged with the murder following Hardy's confession to the killing, in which he implicated Anderson.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins tells Unfair Park he was first notified one year ago that it was likely Dallas County had sent to prison the wrong men. The Texas Center for Actual Innocence at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at Arlington Innocence Network came to his office in 2008 with the grim news, which Watkins pored over till deciding to turn over the case to his Conviction Integrity Unit and the Dallas Police Department's Cold Case Unit. Bringing in the DPD was a particularly difficult decision, Watkins says; he explains after the jump. He also talks about the ramifications of this case for both his office and DPD Chief David Kunkle's force, and why this one -- the first non-DNA exoneration since Watkins took office -- could have profound implications nationwide.

When did you first get the case?

About a year ago.

What was your reaction when they first handed it over?

I don't have a reaction at this point. It's something you expect given recent history. But, you know, I am getting past disparaging how things were done in the past. It's time to move forward.

What was it about this case that first caught your attention, that ultimately led to your collaborating with the Dallas Police Department?

It had all the red flags: There was photo ID evidence, there was the chance that someone else might have committed the crime, and the judge in this case already had an exoneration as a prosecutor. She was responsible for an exoneration we did early on.

Which one?

I don't recall. But she's a judge now in Cooke County. And even the prosecutor had some issues.

Such as?

[Long pause] I mean, I am trying to stay away from criticizing ... But when you first look at these files, the mindset is: "Oh, here's another claim of innocence." It's only when you see the red flags that you get the inclination to go forward. Because far more folks we investigate are guilty than innocent.

At what point did you decide to get the police department involved?

Early on, and they were very receptive to some of the ideas on how they should change their techniques, and this was the perfect opportunity. And it brings so much credibility to how things should work. And the person who actually investigated the case is still at the department and assisted on the reinvestigation. I won't go into who it is, but when it was clear we had the wrong guys, this guy had tears in his eyes. A lot of folks involved in these exonerations are not malicious. They're of the mindset of doing the right things, but often that's coupled with failed techinques and people who are more concerned with convictions than justice.

And we'll see more cases like this. The good thing is, Dallas County and the state of Texas are setting the model for what should be done. So I expect this case will get a lot of attention, and I expect you'll see other police departments get involved in cases like this. We're going to lead the way in how to dispense justice.

When did you know that not only would you be exonerating Claude Simmons and Christopher Scott, but also arresting Don Anderson and charging both he and Alonzo Hardy with the 1997 murder?

I've known about this case since early summer. I had an idea we would probably get to this point, but I wasn't sure because we were still investigating. Then we got a confession from the guy in prison [Hardy], who admitted to everything. We took everyone's polygraph and got a lead on the guy in Houston. So I've known about this for a while. The thing we do before we announce this is we make sure everything's in place. This was a long time coming.

When did Simmons and Scott find out they had been exonerated?

They've been in the Dallas County Jail for a while from prison, so they knew something was going on. They knew we were re-investigating. But they found out yesterday, and we'll have a hearing Friday. The fact they're here and we're talking and we gave them a lie detector, they knew something was going on. But we didn't tell them for sure.

Did you have any trepidation about taking the case to the Dallas police? Because you were saying that not only had the District Attorney's Office messed up, but also the police.

Obviously. Think about it this way. Go back 12 years, and you write a story and use all of our training on that story, and 12 years later all that training turns out to be faulty. You have to put aside your ego to say you were wrong. We went in thinking this would be difficult for them. But before they got this case there had been 20 exonerations. And [homicide detective Ken] Penrod led this deal in the Cold Case Unit. He was savvy enough to understand this is an opportunity for us to shine a light on the department's techniques, and he took advantage of it. As a result of Penrod taking this stance ... well, I don't know how difficult it was for him, but you will see more police officers getting on board with this, because it makes their jobs easier when dealing with the public. To acknowledge and rectify wrongdoing gives you more credibility.

I assume that since you began exonerating prisoners using DNA evidence, the kind of I'm-innocent letters you get must be piling up ...

It's not as many as you think. You'd think everyone in prison would be sending us a letter. If I were in prison I would take advantage of every opportunity. ... But when you look at this historical nature of the cases we're exonerating, well, this isn't interesting to me, but it may be to the people who disagree with what we're doing: They have claimed and maintained their innocence from day one, and that's a telling sign.

You say "people who disagree with what we're doing," and I see a lot of that whenever these kind of cases arise -- the sentiment that the DA should be putting people in prison, not letting them out ...

But that's a political position. For the longest time in Texas and in Dallas County in particular, people running for district attorney have campaigned as being tough on crime, and we have said that our success is based on how many folks we send to prison. And therein lies the problem. It should be based on results. The job of the district attorney is to provide adequate public safety, and at the end of the day, the crime rate is reduced and you've dispensed justice. No one ever challeged the DA when the crime rate was high as hell and they were sending innocent people to prison. But the crime rate in Dallas is lower because of policies we're putting in place. We're getting away from "tough on crime." It's like I said during my campaign: We're being smart on crime, and this is another example.

And this could be our biggest exoneration case yet. We're up to 23 now, and this one is non-DNA. And we brought in the Dallas police. I would imagine folks around the country will take a long, hard look at this one.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky