Anyone who thought Dallas County Republicans would go quietly into the night just because they got their asses handed to them on the courthouse steps in the 2006 election romp is seriously mistaken. Proof comes in the form of Phillip Linder, who must not have gotten the memo that Dallas County has been stained dark blue and, if you ask the Democrats, indelibly so. Nonetheless, Linder recently has made public his plans to take on incumbent Democratic District Attorney Craig Watkins, a formidable foe in his own right, a national media darling (some say hound) for his game-changing play regarding the exoneration of defendants wrongfully convicted under the regimes of his red-meat prosecutorial predecessors.
Linder was gracious enough to grant us an interview, (the guy's a political unknown who can use all the free pub he can generate), agreeing to meet us at Unfair Park HQ. Though admittedly nervous at his first full-contact interview, the well-dressed, short-haired, criminal defense attorney acquitted himself nicely. He should also present well at all those tedious Republican women's club gatherings he will be forced to attend. Good luck with that.
What follows is our Q&A, edited for space, readability and the empathic urge to prevent a political newbie from shooting himself in the foot before he gets out of the starting blocks. Linder will formally announce his candidacy the first week in October.
Politics is all about timing? Why do you think this is your time to take on a popular sitting DA?
I think popularity is relative: Craig is popular among his constituents, but he is not popular in law enforcement circles of Dallas County. He has put a lot of his time into representing the interests of people who are falsely accused, and that has been a good project. But he was never a prosecutor. I have been a prosecutor (three and a half years under former District Attorney John Vance) and a criminal defense attorney in private practice (more than13 years). I would bring a more balance as far as overall law enforcement is concerned.
You're saying there is an imbalance in the office right now?
I think so, working in the courthouse and working with law enforcement the way I do on a daily basis, there has been a lot of focus on getting people out of jail and not as much focus on getting solid convictions and getting people into jail.
So you think he is soft on crime?
I don't think Craig he is soft on crime, per se. His focus has been on the innocence project and he is too caught up with the commissioners over budget matters and has neglected things like training young prosecutors so they can get good honest convictions on the people who need it.
Would you do away with things like his Conviction Integrity Unit (which reviews the validity of passed convictions)?
I don't think so ... but if prosecutors are trained right down the road, you wouldn't need a conviction integrity unit and we could eventually do away with it.
Dallas County has gone Democratic in the last two election cycles, so why do you think you can win?
Trends always go back and forth...and conservative people in Dallas County are not happy with the trend, and they are gong to come out and speak their minds.
So you define yourself as a conservative?
Yes, I would.
Even though you are a practicing criminal defense attorney?
As a lawyer, I am sworn to uphold the Constitution both as a criminal defense attorney and a prosecutor.
Sounds like you plan on appealing to conservatives with more of a law and order approach to the DA's office?
Yes ... but it needs to be balanced, this isn't old days in Texas. This is Dallas in 2009. Still law enforcement needs to be the concern of the district attorney.
Watkins says he is concerned about law enforcement, which is why his conviction rate remains high. Are you seeing something different in the numbers?
I think the trend shows that in the three years of Craig's administration, that arrests are continuing to rise at a greater rate than indictments are tending to rise. So why the big variance? Because the percentage of cases not making it through the system is higher. More and more cases are being dismissed either before they get to the grand jury, at the grand jury, or after indictment.
How do we know that you are not going to be this retro-DA, cut out of the same cloth as Henry Wade or Bill Hill? Or even your old boss John Vance?
The DA that I would like to be is the DA known for doing the right thing ... If you look back at those regimes, every one of them did good things, and we should take the best from each and make them better.
Watkins has made much out of what he calls the "conviction at any cost" mentality of these prior regimes, and you were part of one of them. Do you believe this to be true?
I do not ... I worked as a prosecutor under John Vance and as a criminal lawyer under Bill Hill and neither one had a "conviction at any cost" mentality.
Do you get the sense as a criminal lawyer that it is easier to get a more favorable plea bargain for your client under the Watkins administration than under these prior regimes?
Overall, yes ... at least until a few weeks ago when Watkins got involved in an argument about jail overcrowding with the commissioners. Then it became difficult if not impossible to get a plea recommendation without the trial prosecutors going to their supervisors.
Are you suggesting Watkins purposefully slowed down the plea process so it would overcrowd the jails and he could argue to the commissioners that he needed his prosecutors at the same budget level to handle the backlog?
I don't know for what reason it happened. It is my opinion that it stemmed from the squabble with the commissioners. Up until the day when the squabble became public, you could get a plea recommendation from a chief or his assistants and the next day it had to be sent up the chain of command.
Do you think Watkins has hurt himself by being such a forceful spokesman for his office on budget matters -- refusing to cut his budget and taking his case to the people?
I think so. As a taxpayer and a lawyer, I see people every day making less money and having to do with less. Other county offices have had to reduce their budgets. For him to wholeheartedly refuse and ask the commissioners for a 10 percent increase, well that makes me concerned as a taxpayer and as a fiscal conservative.
Well, it's got to warm the cockles of your Republican heart to see open warfare between two high powered Democrats (Commissioner John Wiley Price and Watkins)?
I don't view this as a political issue. I think fighting between leaders of the community is bad for the community, leaders need to work together. If I am the DA, I will be a team player, and that is a step in the right direction in the DA's office.
You know, you are taking on something of a national celebrity here. Watkins has made reformation of the Dallas justice system a key component of his administration and become a national media darling in the process. Do you think he is a local hero as well?
In some circles he is, but if you get to the root of why he is a celebrity, it all goes back to one issue, which is the innocence project...What people should realize is most of these exonerations began before his time, and without the Dallas County crime lab preserving the evidence, none of this would have been possible.
But he opened up the process didn't he? He didn't fight DNA testing like other DA's who seemed more interested in the finality of their convictions than examining old cases for innocence.
I will give him great credit for making that process easier. I would have the same attitude toward DNA testing, and I would follow that same policy.
Do you think Watkins is something of a media hound?
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He does appear to get a lot of media attention.
What did you think of Watkins' TV series, Dallas DNA, on the Discovery Channel?
Never watched it.
Too busy with Law and Order reruns?
Too busy working.