Dallas DA established unit to look into old cases

02/13/2011 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:02 AM

On his second day as Dallas County District Attorney, Craig Watkins received a motion needing his signature.

It was to destroy old evidence.

"I didn't sign it," Watkins said.

Preserving crime evidence is one reason Texas' third-largest city has 21 DNA exonerations, more than any city in the country.

Ten wrongful convictions have surfaced since 2007, the year Watkins took office and the same year he established a Conviction Integrity Unit.

Watkins compares the unit, the nation's first, to an internal affairs division in police departments. One prosecutor, an investigator and legal assistant look at old cases that might free innocent people or apprehend culprits who have escaped justice.

They look for DNA samples that haven't been tested. They review lapses in police investigations, mistakes in eyewitness identification or mishandled evidence.

"That unit gets to see the mistakes first-hand," Watkins said. "And we can see how we can fix those."

The Conviction Integrity Unit looked at cases in which DNA testing had been denied. It found half the cases proved the wrong people were convicted.

"We have a long way to restore confidence in our system here in Dallas, and I believe throughout this country," Watkins said. "Because we're seeing time and time again, our system is not working."

By the time Watkins' unit uncovers wrongful convictions, the cases already have been through the appeals process.

Part of the reason, Watkins said, is that once tainted facts or evidence are introduced, they become gospel as the case proceeds under review.

"The appellate process is there to protect the verdict,'' he said. "It's not there to seek the truth."

Watkins said he encourages other district attorneys to adopt such units. But he understands why elected prosecutors who have held the job for many years may fight reopening cases.

"They don't want to go back and look because they don't want to shine a light on their failures," Watkins said.

Watkins said he doesn't see righting wrongs as a political detriment, however.

"I don't know anyone — Republican, Democrat, liberal or conservative — who wants to see an innocent person convicted," he said.

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Related stories:

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How innocent people end up behind bars

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