Craig Watkins Is Ready for His Close-Up

I winced when asked to screen an advance 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 legendary notoriety, but with the global media fawning over a DA who actually seems to be seeking justice rather than demanding it, and Watkins's personal penchant for pub, he's become more myth than man in less than 30 months.

The subject of stories by 60 Minutes, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post -- and, full disclosure, I wrote a piece for Texas Lawyer giving him Impact Lawyer of the Year in 2007 -- 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. Well, prosecutors other than Watkins.

Not only did Watkins agree to review these petitions, allowing 40 of them to proceed with DNA analysis (there have been 19 DNA exonerations to date in Dallas County), he set up an unprecedented Conviction Integrity Unit within his own office, which looks at the legal soundness of Dallas County 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.

According to its promotional materials, Dallas DNA, which premieres tomorrow and reruns throughout the week, follows the real-world exploits of this pioneering unit as it attempts to exonerate the innocent or confirm the convictions of the guilty through the use of DNA tests unavailable when these defendants were years before put on trial. If the staged photo on the DVD provided any indication of its contents, the series looked to be rife with cliché.

Ripping off a Law & Order promo, it lines up the lawyers of the Conviction Integrity Unit, with a larger-than-life Watkins at the forefront. Alas, Watkins happens to be a big guy, and his policies have changed the lives of many wrongfully accused, but his presence isn't felt as much in the courtroom as it is in this DVD photo.

In the first episode, whose style veers between reality show and documentary, Watkins only has about 30 seconds of screen time. The real stars of the show are those CIU staffers who do the actual innocence grunt work, reviewing cold cases, sifting for evidence of bad eyewitness identifications, false confessions and prosecutorial misconduct. Their dialogue about whether to proceed with a DNA test, which is jealously guarded because it strains the resources of the unit at a $5,000 a swab, at times, seems stilted, lacking the naturalism that trademarks the reality-show genre. Not that that's such a good thing.

But the real natural of this first episode is the animated Michelle Moore, a Dallas County Public Defender on loan to the CIU whose passion and joy for her work is downright infectious. Through her, we meet two convicts: Johnnie Lindsey, who has served 26 years of a life sentence for aggravated sexual assault, and Rocky Morris, who has already served 14 years for the rape of his girlfriend's daughter.

Both men are given the obligatory mouth swab, and we wait anxiously for the results as their alleged crimes and stories are voiced-over by a Brit in the kind of stylized cliffhanger fashion we have come to expect from true-crime documentaries.

At an hour, nothing is delved into too deeply. Absent from the conversation is any in-depth analysis of how a wrongful conviction could have occurred in the first place. Better to keep things simple, milking the tension with twangy guitar music and big cutaway shots of Dallas. After all, this is television. But then comes the fateful day for both men, as Moore, in different scenes, shares with the men the results of their testing: freedom for one, back to prison for the other.

It's Moore with whom we identify as she delivers the news. Because these men have had to tamp down their feelings for so long, they don't dare risk revealing any big emotions -- that will take some living and learning on the outside, though just for one of them. The episode hits the right high notes: the swab, the results, the courtroom exoneration, the public apologies, the reunions with relatives, the unease with the ordinary.

Perhaps its most honest moment occurs when one exoneree reunites with the son he barely knew; neither of them quite knows how to act or what is expected of them.

There's been some blowback about the ethics of the series -- whether it exploits the victims or the exonerees -- but it seems fairly tame by reality-show standards, and in our voyeuristic culture where everyone craves a behind-the-scenes peak, we long ago gave up creating a bright line test for separating objective legal reporting from sensational courtroom drama. The series' creators do claim they went to great lengths to preserve confidential matters, and that seems evident from their first installment. And if this series influences other DAs around the state, and the nation for that matter, to establish their own Conviction Integrity Units or just to be more hospitable to DNA testing, then it will enlighten as well as entertain.

But if Craig Watkins expects Dallas DNA to enhance his own legendary status ... well, for that to happen, he'd better get more face time in coming weeks. And word is, that's coming in coming weeks as the cameras followed Watkins when he tried a death penalty case.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald