Freeing the Innocent

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In 2006 Craig Watkins became the first elected African-American district attorney in Texas history. He presides in Dallas County, where the D.A.'s office is known for its aggressive prosecution tactics. A former defense attorney, Watkins says the office has operated for too long on a "convict at all costs" philosophy. A string of wrongful convictions uncovered by the Texas Innocence Project in the months before Watkins was elected reinforces his point. Watkins ran on a reform platform and won a surprising victory against a more experienced Republican opponent.

After taking office, Watkins, 40, dismissed nine top-level prosecutors; nine others left voluntarily. He established a Conviction Integrity Unit to ensure proper prosecutorial procedures, and began working with the Texas Innocence Project to find other cases of wrongful conviction. Senior Editor Radley Balko spoke with Watkins in March.

Q: You're critical of the mind-set of winning convictions at all costs. The legendary law-and-order Dallas prosecutor Henry Wade, who for 35 years held the job you now hold, embodied that philosophy. He's alleged even to have boasted about convicting innocent people--that putting an innocent man in jail proved his prowess as a prosecutor.

A: It was a badge of honor at the time to knowingly convict someone that wasn't guilty. It's widely known among defense attorneys and prosecutors from that era. We had to clean out all the remnants of that older way of thinking.

Q: It's hard to imagine anyone opposed to seeking out and freeing the wrongfully convicted. Do you have critics?

A: We're actually encountering a lot of criticism right now.

Q: What arguments do they make?

A: Initially, their argument was that it's not the rote of a prosecutor to look for bad convictions--that that's the role of a defense attorney. But both the criminal code of the state of Texas and the American Bar Association's code clearly state that the job of a prosecutor is to seek justice. …