Most people have no idea what getting convicted of a crime really would do to them. Really. Not like on TV. As a reporter you catch glimpses. The real damage does not have to do with cops or courthouses. It's not even prison. It's the kid in the window.
A man I know told me once about a moment of extreme pressure in his life when old friends who were business partners, facing ruin, put the screws to him to join them in a financial deal that would bail them out but also violate mortgage law. At least figuratively his hand was trembling over the dotted line on the law-breaking contract, about to sign, when he was visited by a mental image of his kid in the living room window watching him leave for prison.
He didn't sign. The others did. They got caught. I don't remember if they did time. But his kid did not watch him leave for prison.
There's the pain. It's heart-deep and life-rending. Your reputation isn't merely public. In fact that's the easy part. Your reputation is also what the people near and dear to you think of you, and that's what really gets slashed and wounded by a criminal conviction.
The revelations today in the Craig Watkins/Lisa Blue matter are profoundly shocking. They show that a judge believes Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, with a national reputation built on exonerations, was willing to seek a false criminal conviction of two innocent citizens in order to help a major political donor with a money case and suck in some campaign money for himself in the process.
Let's say Watkins had prevailed and Al Hill III and his wife, Erin, were convicted of making false statements in obtaining a mortgage loan in excess of $200,000. Under Texas law , that would be a first degree felony punishable by five to 99 years in prison. And let's say, given that these are rich white people, the elected judges of our county felt obligated to set an example and sent them up the river for some period of time.
Now dial back with me to the 38-page court document just filed and made public in which District Court Judge Lena Levario lays out the reasons she tossed Watkins' criminal case against the Hills. Judge Levario provides multiple detailed instances of Watkins' staff lying in court.
In one instance, Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Martin testified under oath that she had always believed the case against the Hills was strong. But the judge says Martin was "impeached with her own notes" on the issue. Levario cites notes in which Martin had told lawyers seeking the indictment that "the bank really isn't interested in prosecuting" and she "didn't really see how she could prove his criminal case" since OmniAmerican Bank, the alleged victim, had suffered no loss and did not want to prosecute.
My layman's term for "impeached with her own notes" would be caught lying under oath. And what might have happened to change the mind of Martin and her boss, Craig Watkins, about the value of criminally indicting the Hills? Why was the case no good and then suddenly solid enough to seek an indictments?
Having a criminal indictment hanging over his head made it effectively impossible for Al Hill to testify in a separate civil case over a $22 million fee dispute with attorney Lisa Blue. Watkins' friend and campaign donor.
So what does all of that mean to us? Well, I don't know about you, but it means I personally do not ever want to hear the word, exoneration, in connection with Watkins' name again. Of course I believe it's a sin and a travesty for innocent people to get sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. So do you. But the Hill matter tells us that Watkins only wants to get people out of the pen if they look like his voter base.
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If they are rich and white, then Watkins is perfectly at ease with maiming their lives in order to pull in some juicy campaign cash and keep a powerful Democratic lawyer happy. That doesn't have anything to do with justice. It's corruption. It sullies the work he has done to get wrongly convicted people out of prison. It reduces the whole matter to whoring for votes and money.
You do what you want. Me, next time I hear the name Craig Watkins in the same sentence with exonerations, I'm doing that hands-over-the-ears hear-no-evil thing, because that's what this Hill matter is. Evil.