New D.A. Rising?

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins says he wants to get innocent people out of jail. Oddly, in Dallas County, this is a novel concept.

On Wednesday, DNA testing exonerated Andrew Gossett of Garland, who had been serving a 50-year sentence for a 1999 sexual assault he didn't commit. Within 24 hours, Gossett was in a courtroom shaking hands with new Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who apologized and told Gossett his office would work on his application for a pardon and monetary compensation. Gossett, 46, walked out a free man.

"The new D.A.'s office gets credit for that," says attorney Bruce Anton, who handled Gossett's appeal. He was amazed at how fast his client was released. "Craig Watkins was there to speed up the process. I think the change in command makes all the difference in the world."

The office under former District Attorney Bill Hill repeatedly fought against post-conviction requests for DNA tests, even if inmates were willing to pay for the tests out of their own pockets.

"The old policy was to oppose it across the board," says Anton. "If the guy's arguably innocent, we shouldn't block the tests." He felt that Hill's office was delaying Gossett's request, first filed about five years ago. "I felt it was the policy to fight everything and concede nothing."

The go-to guy for DNA appeals under Hill was Deputy Chief John Rolater, who resigned after Watkins won the election. "He'd pay lip service to not wanting an innocent man in prison," says Anton. But Anton says Rolater fought him every step of the way.

Could it be that times really are a-changin' at the distict attorney's office? Entre Nax Karage, exonerated in 2006, says that Hill didn't apologize or shake his hand when Karage walked out of the courtroom a free man. Nor did the prosecutor or state District Judge Karen Greene, who found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.

"I don't see none of them," says Karage, who is Cambodian. "Nobody. It was like nobody cared, like this guy is nothing to them." Greene was booted out of office by the Democratic sweep of the courthouse and prosecutor Tom L'Amore resigned after Watkins' victory. Karage's appellate attorney, Larry Mitchell, was elected judge of Criminal District Court 292.

But the new boss thinks the old policy of opposing tests even when judges had approved them was nonsensical and unfair.

"We're reviewing the policy and we're going to change it," Watkins says. "If it proves they committed the crime, hell, they're where they should be. If not, then they need to be out. It's not about convictions. It's about doing the right thing." Watkins has not hired anyone to take Rolater's place.

In the last year and a half in Dallas County, 11 inmates have been exonerated by DNA tests using more sophisticated techniques than were available at the time of trial. Past district attorneys should be embarrassed that Dallas County now leads the nation in such exonerations. Vanessa Potkin, chief counsel of The Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School, says that "no other county in the country beats Dallas. It's a county that beats out most states in the country. It's an indication of a system that needs reform."

So why is Dallas having such staggering numbers of the innocent put in prison? One clue: Potkin says that almost all of those exonerated were convicted with eyewitness testimony that proved to be wrong. "And these cases are recent, not from the '80s," she says.

"I don't really fault them for taking [Gossett] to trial," says Anton. "But jurors place too much emphasis on the reliability of eyewitnesses." His request to have an expert testify about studies that show eyewitnesses often get identifications wrong was rejected by the judge.

The Innocence Project has been lobbying the state of Texas to create a Innocence Commission to review cases, but that has met stiff resistance. But Potkin is encouraged by Watkins' actions after he took office on Monday. "Within 24 hours of the DNA test results, it was reviewed and he walked out of prison," says Potkin. "That shows an amazing dedication and a real commitment to taking these cases seriously."

Unfortunately, Watkins may be shaking the hands of many more innocent people in the years to come. He says that there are six people he knows of whose cases are pending, but he doesn't know if their requests have been granted. "I just need to look at the cases," Watkins says, "because there's a statute that we have to follow. I should be briefed on that next week."

Anton and Potkin believe there are many more than six cases in the works. "I think that's a very low figure," says Potkin. Anton alone has two of the six: James Blackman and Clay Schabot. But there's another staggering thought: As Potkin points out, biological evidence is an issue in only 10 percent of convictions. She says, "We know there are many more innocent people in prison." --Glenna Whitley

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky