Craig’s List

Craig Watkins, the first black district attorney in Dallas County (and, indeed, the state), has a few things on his agenda: rethink the concept of guilt and innocence, review the methods of his own prosecutors, and reinvent his office. And he’s only getting started.
Watkins, photographed at the Frank Crowley Courts Building, in downtown Dallas, on July 23, 2007.
Photograph by Mike McGregor

Craig Watkins spent much of his first eight months in office campaigning for a job he already won: district attorney of Dallas County. He felt as if he had to, partly because the things he’s trying to do are so radical and partly because he wants to show people that the first black DA there—or anywhere else in Texas—is no Malcolm X. Dallas County has a reputation as one of the most conservative, hard-nosed jurisdictions in the United States, famous over the years for giving out five-thousand-year sentences to kidnappers, keeping minorities off juries, and sending a man to death row who would eventually become the best-known wrongly convicted person in the country—Randall Dale Adams, the subject of the acclaimed 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. It’s the office that, since 2001, has freed thirteen innocent men, all of whom were exonerated by DNA tests, more than any other county in the entire country. In Watkins’s first hundred days, he announced fundamental changes in the way his office would do business: He opened the DA’s files to defense lawyers. He emphasized rehabilitation. Most publicly of all, he invited the Innocence Project of Texas into the courthouse to search for more instances in which innocent men may have been sent to prison. This was like Richard Nixon inviting Woodward and Bernstein to the White House to go through some unreleased tapes.

Through the early months of 2007, while Watkins was meeting with his new staff and hammering out policy ideas, he would duck out to give a speech to the Dallas Police Association or the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce Board or the Dallas Bar Association. In May he addressed the MetroTex Association of Realtors at the Martinez Restaurant in Mesquite, and I drove out with him. On the way Watkins talked comfortably about the death penalty (he’s for it) and destiny (“I feel like I’m here for a reason, and the decisions I make are the decisions I’m supposed to make”), as well as the Duke lacrosse scandal and prosecutor Michael Nifong. The DA is one of the most powerful elected officials in local politics, and he can use the considerable power of the state to bring criminals to justice, or he can, as Nifong did, use it to ruin the lives of innocent citizens. “It happens all the time,” Watkins said, “to regular people who can’t afford big-time lawyers.” One of Watkins’s core beliefs is that the DAs of Dallas County have been doing the same thing to people in North Texas for decades.

As we parked the car, Watkins told me how the realtors group had donated $5,000 to the campaign of his Republican opponent, longtime assistant district attorney Toby Shook. “But just about everybody endorsed Toby,” he added with a little laugh. Inside the banquet room, he stood in front of six dozen men and women as they ate eggs and bacon. Watkins is six feet five inches tall, with broad shoulders and thighs, and he wore a gray suit with a white striped shirt and no tie. He spoke without notes, standing in one place, his hands in his pockets or in space, moving; he occasionally rocked forward on the balls of his feet. He doesn’t have the charisma or cadence of a skilled public speaker, yet he was relaxed and looked people in the eye as they finished their coffee. For the first few minutes he inched forward as he spoke, as if trying to convince the crowd of his sincerity.

I came into this office with the idea of how unfair the system had been for so many years,” he said. “In fact, you talk to a lot of folks, they’ll tell you that their faith in the criminal justice system is gone. We’ve exonerated thirteen individuals who were wrongly convicted, we have the highest crime rate in the nation, and our DAs had a policy in place that excluded people of color from juries. The justice system in Dallas County was unfair—it probably still is unfair. I, and all the people in the district attorney’s office, have a goal: to bring credibility to the system.”

He talked about the past—about how previous administrations had a “conviction-at-any-cost mentality.” He is different, he insisted. “People will tell you I’m soft on crime, I’m coddling criminals, letting them all out of jail,” he said. “That’s not true. I like to think I’m being ‘smart on crime.’” That was one of his main campaign slogans, which essentially means lock up the murderers and rapists but give low-level offenders drug rehab, job training, and the chance to get their GEDs. A few people nodded their heads; others stared through him, thinking of the real estate they could have been showing on a Tuesday morning. Watkins wrapped up by saying, “We’re at the threshold of changing the criminal justice system—not just in the city of Dallas but the county. Not just for the state but this whole country.”

This is not the way prosecutors usually talk. This is the way defense attorneys, liberals, and Democrats talk. Watkins has been all three, yet at the end of his speech, the audience applauded warmly, and a crowd of enthusiastic real estate agents shook his hand and asked him questions. “That seemed to go well,” I understated on our way back to the car. He nodded. “The negative media coverage I had during the campaign benefited me,” he said. “I was painted as incompetent, illiterate. I speak to groups from the north sector of Dallas, and people come up to me after and say, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ People are surprised I can complete a sentence.”

Watkins had a rough campaign last fall. The Dallas Morning News endorsed his foe and publicized his legal troubles with the IRS and his fellow citizens. The best the paper could say about the underdog from South Dallas was that he was “well-intentioned.” Normally soft-spoken, Watkins flares up whenever he discusses the topic. “That hurt me,”

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