Sunday, 25 February 2007

Craig Watkins turns prosecution on its head

Innocent people shouldn't be imprisoned.

Well, duh! That statement on its face will draw agreement across the entire political spectrum. But most folks in the prosecuting business don't seem to agree, when it means releasing prisoners their office successfully convicted. Newly elected Dallas, Texas district attorney Craig Watkins gets kudos for allowing common sense to trump possible embarrassment.

We've all heard the maxim "better 10 guilty men go free than 1 innocent man be convicted." Some have stretched 10 to 100, and what the best number is can be honestly debated or discussed. The constraints put on law enforcement and prosecutors in gaining convictions, when fairly observed, do lessen the likelihood of punishing the innocent in many jurisdictions across the U.S. when compared to earlier times or other countries not sharing our presumption of innocence for the accused.

But once convicted, the shoe is clearly on the other foot.

Even prior to conviction the pressure to solve crimes too often leads police and prosecutors to seek convictions with too much zeal when the guilt of the accused is far from certain. Common sense tells me that zealotry will be manifest in some jurisdictions with a troubling regularity, and that where that is the case district attorneys will resist tooth and nail any attempt to exonerate the convicted.

Of course we want crimes to be solved and the guilty to be caught. We want police and prosecutors to work hard at their jobs to bring justice to criminals. But a crime is better unsolved than solved incorrectly. The attitude of "somebody's gotta pay" too easily transmutes into "anybody's gotta pay".

Enter Craig Watkins.

Actually first came DNA fingerprinting, then came the Innocence Project.

Everyone except the guilty ought to be happy about advances in DNA testing and its use in criminology. Barring tampering with evidence, the likelihood of identifying perpetrators correctly in serious crimes has gone up many fold since the days of my youth. Those behind bars for years who have steadfastly maintained their innocence now have new hope of exoneration. That along with the dogged determination of the Innocence Project founded in 1992 to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. District Attorneys haven't exactly been champing at the bit to provide evidence to the Innocence Project to assure that any their office has wrongly convicted are exonerated. Many jurisdictions destroy evidence after some length of time, while a few dishonest ones no doubt destroyed lots of evidence once they became aware of an interest in reinvestigating claims of false convictions. As stated on IP's website:
Most law enforcement officers and prosecutors are honest and trustworthy. But criminal justice is a human endeavor and the possibility for corruption exists. Even if one officer of every thousand is dishonest, wrongful convictions will continue to occur.
Even honest DAs often aren't anxious to learn that even one of the defendants that they worked so hard to convict might be exonerated after a lengthy prison sentence. That may be why it took the election of an outsider to the DA's office in Dallas to finally produce a DA who will partner with the Innocence Project of Texas to review the cases of 354 inmates who have requested DNA testing.
Watkins, who has seen two men exonerated by DNA since taking office Jan. 1, describes his decision as a no-brainer.

"We had to make this move," Watkins said Friday. "We're going to do things right in Dallas County and right some wrongs that have been done in the past."

DNA evidence has exonerated 12 Dallas County men since 2001, which is more than all but two states, according to the Innocence Project.

A 13th man, James Giles, is expected to be exonerated within the next few weeks, Watkins said.

Thirty-four Dallas County inmates have received DNA testing since being convicted. Eleven saw their guilt confirmed and six are still going through the testing process. In five cases, the DNA testing was inconclusive, according to the district attorney's office.

Dallas County has been the site of an inordinate number of exonerations in part because the laboratory prosecutors use holds onto biological evidence for up to 25 years, said Jeff Blackburn, director of the Innocence Project of Texas.

Other labs across the state often destroy samples after convictions, he said.

Innocence Project lawyers and staffers will work with law students at Texas Wesleyan, Texas Tech, North Texas, University of Texas at Arlington and Southern Methodist to identify the most likely candidates for exonerations.

No tax money will be used to pay for testing, Watkins said.
This observer sees the potential for seismic repercussions across the country with greater scrutiny of prosecutors who have overseen multiple false convictions. Where there are a few there are likely to be many more. I'm certain Dallas County isn't the worse case, though the exoneration of 13 out of 35 hints strongly of either police or prosecutorial misconduct or both there.

The Innocence Project keeps a track record for many states based on previous exonerations and current state laws on compensation for exonorees, DNA access, and the recording of interrogations. You can click the map here for your state or state of interest.


Anonymous said...

I hear that watkins is seeking the death penalty against a mexican citizen with mental retardation because it involves the killing of a police officer. Let's see how fair and just he is when it counts and when he can't blame it on the prior administration. If it is later shown that the defendant was MR, then he will be no better than the past DA's.

Anonymous said...


Attend The Trial October 29, 2007

State of Texas v. Lakeith Amir-Sharif
(CASE NO. F- 05-59639)

Another shameful story of Dallas, Texas, it's broken criminal justice
system and the misuse of tax dollars by our elected officials to fund the injustices occurring daily at the Frank Crowley Courts Building and Dallas County jail

Hi, my name is Kay Lee, Creator and director of MTWT. I’d first like to inform you of an upcoming trial that I urge you to attend so you’ll witness firsthand the double-standards of American justice and the misuse of taxpayers money. With the help of some other dedicated individuals who believe as I do, in “justice for all”, we’ve created the MTWT-TEXAS website. On this site I will be your webmistress while we discuss another substandard jail and a shameful court system which now leads “the nation” in the number of wrongfully convicted defendants. We will focus on the many destroyed lives of defendants like Lakeith Amir Sharif ("Sharif"), the director of the Texas chapter of Making The Walls Transparent (MTWT-TEXAS). Sharif's case exposes many racist, unlawful and unconstitutional facets of the Dallas judicial system and county jail. His story lays bare the often erroneous and at times downright criminal behavior of representatives (past and present) of the legal system that negatively affects so many families and convicts low-income defendants every day, regardless of innocence or guilt. Sharif’s ordeal will lead us through a maze of Dallas County injustice, from the beleaguered county jail directly into the MHMR hospitals and back again. You will meet abusive jailers, unethical doctors, lazy and incompetent defense attorneys, a sheriff, judges, county commissioners, and state legislators who are allowing it all. The trip should anger you, my reader, because you are paying for it all. Looking Forward, Kay Lee






Anonymous said...

aWESOME jOB CRAIG! The good ole boys would have never allowed justice to prevail.

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