The Right Stuff
Senior editor Michael Hall on writing about Dallas County district attorney Craig Watkins.
texasmonthly.com: How did you first get interested in Craig Watkins, the district attorney of Dallas County?
Michael Hall: When he won the election in November, I knew he was a big story, just because he was the first black district attorney in Texas history. But the more I thought about how prosecutors have historically operated in Dallas County—as well as in most of Texas—I thought that this was a great opportunity to look at his election in historical context. His story is great, but in the context of the history of Dallas County, it is greater.
texasmonthly.com: Describe your first impressions of Watkins as you rode with him to meet with a group of realtors at Martinez Restaurant in Mesquite?
MH: He was quiet and low-key, very much at ease. We dropped off his son Cale at school, and he was like any father dropping his kid off at school being tailed by a journalist.
texasmonthly.com: How much of a chance does Watkins have at restoring the fallen criminal justice system in Dallas County?
MH: I think that’s one thing he’s already done. Establishing an open file policy has already changed things in a big way, forcing prosecutors to turn over all their evidence, which will level the playing field between them and the defense and cut down on bad convictions. And if there are any more DNA exonerations (I’m pretty sure there will be), there could be further calls for real change in the way we prosecute criminals, especially the ways we use eyewitness testimony.
texasmonthly.com: You got a quick glance at Watkins’s family. They welcomed you into their house in DeSoto, and you heard about their active grassroots involvement in Watkins’s campaign as he ran for DA. How would you best describe them?
MH: Honestly, I didn’t get much of a feel of it. I only spent a little time with his wife, Tanya, and his two sons. I spent maybe twenty minutes with his parents. They all seem pretty close. Nobody cursed or threw any coffee cups.
texasmonthly.com: Did you get scared when Watkins’ son Cale pulled out two Nerf guns and opened fire on you?
MH: No. They weren’t loaded. And I have a three-and-a-half-year-old son, so I’m used to it.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think Dallas County has been so adamant about harshly—and hastily—punishing criminals in the past?
MH: I think a lot of it was just the times. For most of American history, criminals and suspected criminals have been treated like scum, given no rights, rushed through the system with little due process. (The modern era of treating criminals as people with rights began around 1966 with the Supreme Court’s Miranda decision.) I think in Dallas, Henry Wade developed a fast, efficient system for pushing these people through the courts. So swift was the justice, though, that shortcuts were made, and innocent people were convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.
texasmonthly.com: It seems like people in Dallas County either view Watkins as a threat to the structure of the current criminal justice system, or as a much-needed reformer of it. Did you pick up any sense of this separation among the citizens of Dallas County during your time with him?
MH: Most people seem willing to give him a chance. The ones who aren’t are generally people with some kind of stake with previous administrations, who did things in a different way and who feel tarred by the brush Watkins has used to paint those administrations as unfair.
texasmonthly.com: There are several comparisons of Craig Watkins to Barack Obama, W.E.B. DuBois, and even Martin Luther King Jr. In what ways do you think he is or is not following in their footsteps?
MH: Well, he is a first, a pioneer, a trailblazer. But the other three, especially DuBois and King, worked for a long time in the civil rights trenches. Watkins is still very new at this—he hasn’t paid many dues yet (something that he would be the first to tell you).
texasmonthly.com: As much as this story is about a young, ambitious DA splashing the political pool of Dallas County, it’s also largely centered on some forms of racism. How do you think things would be different if Watkins were white?
MH: First off, I think there’s a chance he wouldn’t have won, because he had so much support from black South Dallas voters; on the other “hand”, of course, the Democrats won 42 contested races for judges and four other countywide campaigns in the 2006 election, so he probably would have won too. Now that he’s in office, Watkins—because he’s black—has a certain amount of (to use the Seinfeld idea) hand that he wouldn’t have if he were white, because of Dallas County’s history with blacks: the DA’s office had an actual policy of keeping blacks off juries until (at least) the eighties; blacks have been (and still are) terrified of even going down to the courthouse; most of the thirteen DNA exonerees are black. I think the fact that the chief law enforcement officer of Dallas County is black carries some real moral weight that wouldn’t be so heavy if he were (merely) a white Democrat.
texasmonthly.com: Watkins told you a story about his life-changing experience in the church at age eight. How much has that experience shaped his agenda as DA?
MH: I don’t know—he’s religious but not in a proselytizing, make-it-a-part-of-my-agenda kind of way. He knows his Bible, but he knows that’s not the bible of law enforcement.
texasmonthly.com: What was your favorite experience with him?
MH: The courthouse guards wouldn’t let me bring my digital camera in, so I called Watkins and he took the elevator down from the eleventh floor to the second and personally okayed it. It was funny to see the looks on the guards’ faces. Then Watkins walked over to the ATM machine and got some cash.
When Mike McGregor, the photographer, set up to take photos for the story, Watkins introduced himself as Watkins’s assistant. Mike bought it.
texasmonthly.com: Do you foresee other counties in Texas following Watkins’s active approach to correcting skewed criminal justice systems?
MH: It will depend on how successful he is. If there is another batch of DNA exonerations, I think he will get everyone’s attention even more than he already has, and perhaps the state legislature and other DA offices will start making some similar reforms.