By Alan Bean
The Dallas Observer recently published Leslie Minora’s extensive piece on the shift to non-DNA exonerations in Dallas County. DA Craig Watkins has been accused of grandstanding, Minora says, but his ideological opponents usually overlook the unusual context in which the Maverick prosecutor works:
What his critics ignore is Dallas County’s reputation as a place where prosecutors aimed to convict at all costs. Changing that culture in a conservative, law-and-order minded place like Dallas is difficult. What his critics see as media whoring could just as easily be considered the sort of necessary publicity to change the political culture and — not coincidentally — keep Watkins in office. Watkins, a former criminal defense lawyer, Texas’ first black district attorney and the first Democrat to win the Dallas office since 1986, took a political gamble in establishing the unit. As non-DNA cases increasingly become the unit’s focus, the stakes grow higher as the cases lose the protective hedge of objective, science-based evidence. “I’m sure the day will come when there will be political fallout as the result of a decision we make to exonerate someone with no science. That’s inevitable. That will happen,” Watkins says. But as Duke and others can attest, it’s a risk Watkins is willing to take.
The article notes that Watkins’ Conviction Integrity Unit dealt with the easy, smoking-gun DNA cases first. But what about the 85% of criminal cases that involve no meaningful DNA evidence?
. . . the sheer number of DNA exonerations — and the efforts to uncover how the courts failed so miserably — have revealed troubling gaps in the criminal justice system: Eyewitnesses are more fallible than jurors might think; forensic evidence isn’t always reliable or interpreted correctly; the way police run lineups can lead to wrongful convictions. The trouble is, those problems may just as easily plague cases in which no DNA exists. Modern science has shown the justice system the tip of the iceberg, but how many innocent men and women are suffering in prison and likely to stay there because they have no evidence to test? Where do law enforcement and innocence advocates, faced with sorting out the guilty and innocent, go from here?
The move to non-DNA exonerations will be difficult, Minora predicts. Recanting witnesses, ambiguous evidence and gross prosecutorial misconduct may raise concerns about the legitimacy of a conviction; but there is no real substitute for the slam dunk certainty DNA evidence can provide. How will the public respond to cases that, although riddled with issues that undermine confidence in a conviction, fall short of the sure-fire proof of actual innocence to which residents of Dallas County have grown accustomed?
Beyond DNA, Difficult Tests for the Justice System is highly recommended. In an entertaining and revealing section, Minora puts Craig Watkins (the most progressive prosecutor in Texas) against Williamson County’s John Bradley, arguably the most law-n-order DA in the Lone Star State. Grits for Breakfast reported this morning that the Texas Bar Association has dismissed the grievance filed against Bradley in connection with the Michael Morton case. This suggests that, here in Texas anyway, Bradley’s insistence that the guilty remain behind bars still trumps Watkins’ fears about wrongful conviction.