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A Conversation with Craig Watkins

For the 11th event in our TribLive series, I interviewed the Dallas County district attorney about why and how he's worked to exonerate the wrongfully imprisoned and whether he's dragging his feet on a controversial corruption case involving county constables.

For the 11th event in our TribLive series, I interviewed the district attorney of Dallas County about why and how he's worked to exonerate the wrongfully imprisoned and whether he's dragging his feet on a controversial corruption case involving county constables. We've provided the conversation in three forms: video, full audio and a transcript.

Evan Smith: Please join me in welcoming the district attorney of Dallas County, Craig Watkins. Thank you for being here.

Craig Watkins: Well, thank you for having me, and first of all, congratulations on such a successful venture with this new type of media outlet that you’ve started being a trailblazer. We really appreciate that here in Texas; we needed it.

Smith: I really appreciate that. I hope you like me as much after 30 minutes

Watkins: Oh, okay, let’s see.

Smith: Let’s see.

Smith: Let me begin by asking you about the exonerations that I alluded to, which really consumed everyone’s attention for the first few years you were in the DA’s office. You confirmed for me 22 exonerations have resulted from the efforts of your office so far, looking at wrongful prosecutions, is that right? 22?

Watkins: Overall, 22. Some of those exonerations happened before I came into office, but largely most of them happened after we were elected in January of 2007. The traditional path as it related to claims of innocence was the thought process or the methodology was based on protecting the conviction, protecting the jury’s verdict. So we came in and just my life experience, as a result of my life experience coming in with a different mindset of what it means to be a prosecutor I thought it was…

Smith: Talk about that — what do you mean by your life experiences? How did your life experience impact your thinking on this?

Watkins: Well, you know I grew up in Dallas. I’m from Texas, and where I’m from, the neighborhood I’m from, for example, law enforcement didn’t work for people in my community. You could say it was because of socioeconomic conditions, you could say it was because of race, you could say it was because of what side of town you lived on, but it didn’t work. From the standpoint of victims, largely in our community, the community I grew up in, if you needed support from law enforcement, it was not at the same level as it was in other places. You would see victimization, you would see people just throw their hands up and not want to deal with law enforcement. Then you go to the other side of it and you look at the fact that people from the community I was from found themselves on the wrong side of the law more often than not and they would be in situations were they may have been innocent, and they would be convicted of something they didn’t do. So my perspective was somewhat unique, and when I came in I wanted to make law enforcement work for everyone no matter how much money you had, what you looked like, what school you went to, what side of town you lived on. It was more about making law enforcement work. In certain communities throughout this country and in Texas, we have this new ideology with the younger demographics who say, “We’re not going to snitch, we’re not going to snitch. We’re not going to call the police.” That phenomenon just didn’t happen on its own. It happened because people had a distrust of law enforcement. Why would we call the police, because when we become victims, they don’t respond as they should, or they treat us a certain way. And when someone may commit a crime legitimately, other individuals may be wrapped up into that crime that may be innocent. So, my thought process, you know you go back to the dubious distinction Dallas has about keeping certain people off of juries — all that played into, you know, a certain part of our community, our citizens in Dallas county. I would venture to say that this goes across the board. It’s not just Dallas; this is a problem that we have with the United States.

Smith: But, arguably you were not elected by the people of Dallas County to reopen old cases …

Watkins: No.

Smith: … you were elected to prosecute new cases and make certain that the law was being respected and upheld …

Watkins: Yes.

Smith: … in the county going forward. So why go backwards instead of forwards?

Watkins: Obviously, you know we get lost in the definition of what a district attorney is. It’s a political position, so you would campaign based upon what you thought would be considered successful with the citizens that you’re asking for the vote and for the longest time success meant that you had a really high conviction rate, you sent a lot of folks to jail. I just thought that was somewhat shortsighted. Our success and what we campaign on deals with the fact that we’re making you safer, and we do have that distinction in Dallas for years. We have always had a really high conviction rate in Dallas, and our administration is higher than its ever been even before I ever got there. When I came in, we were fortunate enough to have a conviction rate of 99.4 percent, and I think there is a reason for that. You know, several years ago, '95, '96, we changed the law as to who would be eligible to serve on a jury and how we picked [them] you get the little thing in the mail. and before it was based upon whether or not you were registered to vote. So the pool was very small, and you had a certain group of individuals that would always serve on juries. I believe in '96, '97, I can’t remember the exact year we changed the law, which meant we would just go by a person’s driver’s license. If they live in Dallas County and you have a driver’s license, then you are eligible to serve on a jury in Dallas County. So when that happened, you had this diverse group of individuals with different experiences that they brought to the table, and you would find that the conviction rates were starting to go down because you had that diversity on juries, you had those individuals bringing their life experiences to the table and they had within their mindset a distrust of law enforcement, and so when a prosecutor or a police officer would get up and testify that someone committed a crime, those folks that served on the jury would have in the back of their mind everything that they had witnessed, that they had seen, their experiences. So I saw that as an opportunity. How about getting the top law enforcement official in Dallas County, get elected and go on record to say yes our justice system has failed us over the last few years or for a long time and we’re going to fix it? And so when we decide to look at this conviction integrity unit, it realty was not looking back — it was looking forward, and we looked forward in the process of making sure that we would identify those mistakes that happened all of those years and not make those same mistakes.

Smith: Not only correct them, but also ensure that they don’t happen again.           

Watkins: That’s right, you know it’s about correcting that things that we can but then also going forward and linking up those issues that and rectifying them by putting policies and procedures in place to ensure that we don’t make those same mistakes.

Smith: Tell me a policy that you’ve put in place in Dallas County since you began the conviction integrity unit that reflects a change in the way things have been done previously.

Watkins: Oh, there are several. If you look at the conviction integrity unit, a lot of folks think DNA innocence project, and that’s pretty much how it started, but it’s more than that. What we’ve created is somewhat this laboratory. When we look at these wrongful convictions, we see these specific issues that are in pretty much every case, and we wanted to address those, and in addressing that it’s just not about DNA. It’s about looking at the process.

Smith: What are the other issues?

Watkins: For example, eyewitness identification. You know, in the majority of the cases that we have exonerated, the victim picked out the wrong person. There was a certain way, a standard that had been in place for years as to how you present potential assailants to witnesses, and that process has proven to fail, because of the 22 exonerations. I believe 19 of them resulted in …

Smith: … hinged on eyewitness identification that was incorrect.

Watkins: … that was incorrect. So we went and advocated with the 46 different agencies that file cases with the district attorney’s office and asked that maybe you need to look at this ad change your process, a system called the double-blind system. They use it in pharmaceuticals and testing drugs, and that system has proven to work at this point. We also looked at the process when the case comes to the DA’s office, and we had seen, unfortunately, that there may have been evidence to point to another person in a prosecutor’s file. That’s called exculpatory evidence, something that shows the person did not commit the time. That information legally is required to be shared with the opposing counsel, and in a lot of those cases it was not. So we did an open-file policy. As prosecutors, we represent the state; what do we have to hide? It’s not about winning; it’s about justice. I truly believe that with the competence of the DA’s in our office even by sharing this information if the person is guilty, they will be found guilty. There is no reason not to give all of this information over. So, at the end, the proper result is had.

Smith: You’re deemphasizing the need to just log convictions for the sake of being able to say, "Look how tough on crime we are."

Watkins: It’s about the process. It’s about justice.

Smith: Twenty-two exonerations so far. We haven’t heard an enormous amount out of the integrity unity lately, but I assume that the work you’re doing is still going on, and are there more? Are you going to announce any exonerations anytime soon? Do you have anything that you can tell us today about the work that’s going on before we move on?

Watkins: Well we’ve processed. You know, we started out dealing with DNA, and now we have progressed because we see these patterns in these cases, and we’re starting to look at non-DNA cases as it relates to exoneration. The Conviction Integrity Unit is not limited to just look at a possible wrongful conviction — it’s to look at the process and to always have an element there that will allow us to continue to prove, to improve upon the process. It’s not just limited to looking at old cases.

Smith: So you might actually, rather, can go after specific cases in which somebody may have been innocent. You may go after bad lawyers, you may go after bad judges. You may go after aspects of the process that may not affect the outcome but ultimately are bad from a criminal justice standpoint.

Watkins: It’s not going after a bad lawyer or bad judge — it’s going after a bad policy a bad process.

Smith: You leave it at the policy level and leave the people out of it? Leave the positions out of it?

Watkins: Well, yeah, that’s right. I don’t think we have lawyers in our office at this point that are more concerned with a win than the justice side of it. So at this point, we’re looking at the process and trying to improve the process to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes going forward.

Smith: Let me move from the exoneration question to the other thing that has made headlines over the last several years, and that is the constable’s case. You talk a lot about respect for the law and openness, and I want to ask to hold you to those two things, because the constable’s case has come to almost consume all coverage of your office and of you specifically as you seek re-election, fairly or unfairly, and I want to ask you about it. For the benefit of the audience, this is a case that goes back almost two and a half years to February of 2008 when the county auditor's office in Dallas County received a confidential tip about alleged corruption involving a wrecker service, Dowdy Ferry, and two constables in Precinct 1 and Precinct 5. There have been calls for you to investigate these constables ever since and until you blessed the appointment of a special prosecutor in the last couple of weeks you’ve been attacked for essentially doing nothing. Let me ask you to respond to the general situation, and then we’ll get into the specifics.

Watkins: Well, actually we started our investigation in late summer 2009, mid-late summer. The alleged memo that we were said to have received back in February of 08, our notation shows that we received that memo Oct. 7, 2009.

Smith: So you say that the office didn’t receive … I thought that the issue was that you had received the memo but you hadn’t actually logged until October.

Watkins: That’s right

Smith: So you’re not saying that you didn’t receive it, you’re just saying that it didn’t turn up in your office until October.

Watkins: That’s right. You know, you look at the memo and it’s dated a certain date in 2008. Obviously I don’t think that the auditor just kept that in her drawer and waited until she released this report.

Smith: You believe that she’s telling the truth when she says that she provided your office the memo in early ’08.

Watkins: Yes, I believe she’s telling the truth.

Smith: So were was the memo?

Watkins: Well, great question.

Smith: I hear you have investigators on staff — perhaps you could find out where it was.

Watkins: We do, we do have investigators on staff, but if we got in it 2008 or 2009, I know that’s an issue that a lot of folks are hanging their hat on, but our investigation started officially in 2009 of the constables. Information concerning this investigation was shared confidentially with two commissioners who voted to go and hire this independent investigator even though this information had been shared with them. Investigations, so if you look at the time frame from late summer to now, it’s not even been a year, and the issues that we’re dealing with are very complex. When you deal with elected officials, I can tell you when I first came into office, you would be surprised at the number of individuals that wanted we to investigate folks in the other party.

Smith: Politics, I’m shocked.

Watkins: Yes, so our position in that situation is because it’s so sensitive. Unfortunately, history has shown use that politicians use the criminal justice system to benefit their ability to get re-elected. We didn’t want that. So, you saw me not going public with an investigation and talking about what we’re finding, who we’re investigating because that is just generally good …

Smith: Not even acknowledging that there was an investigating going on.

Watkins: That’s right.

Smith: Regardless of the findings, you didn’t even acknowledge, when asked, are you investigating constables, which left the impression that your office was in fact doing nothing.

Watkins: That’s right.

Smith: Do you wish you had acknowledged it now, given how much press there has been about what you did and didn’t do?

Watkins: No, I mean, I still stick with that. Our approach will always be that when we are investigating someone, because you think about it, when you’re dealing with criminal law, at the end of the day, if it holds true, what you’re investigating and you’re going to take someone’s freedom and probably their livelihood. So before we get to that point of announcing if these allegations are true or even if we’re looking into them, we have to respect the system and let the system play itself out and not let these cases play themselves out in the media, especially during an election cycle.

Smith: So you say that you began the investigation on the discovery of that memo in late summer, early part of the fall of '09.

Watkins: No, this memo had nothing to do with us starting the investigation.

Smith: So then what caused the investigation, and if the timing of the investigation is not related to the memo, did you just not know about these allegations back to February of ’08. What took you so long to begin to investigate? That has been one of the sticking points when people have attacked you and your office for this case. Why did you wait so long?

Watkins: Well, I didn’t wait long. We started getting allegations in I remember probably around when the stories about me going on this budget battle to keep our office funded. We started getting allegations around that time. It wasn’t that we were holding off. When we started to get the allegations, we started investigating. We just didn’t publicly say that because ... you look at any traditional law enforcement agency, the FBI, the U.S. attorney’s office, the attorney general. As a reporter you pick up the phone and you call FBI agent Jack Brown. Well, Jack, are you investigating Evan Smith? Well, Jack is going to tell you that we can never confirm nor deny that we’re investigating anyone.

Smith: This was simply a case of that. So every time a reporter calls you, it was just you saying, “Can’t comment on whether there is a case.”

Watkins: That’s right. Now, our foes would tell you the DA’s office was trying to do everything to keep that investigating from going forward or to keep us from hiring this outside investigator. Obviously, yes, I did that. I was really trying to protect the sanctity of the DA’s office. I was elected by the public, the citizens of Dallas County, which gave me the power to investigate cases. Because of the political atmosphere, I thought it was somewhat disingenuous of the commissioner’s court to usurp that power.

Smith: So when they decided that they got tired of what they perceived as your foot-dragging and they asked the former FBI agent Danny Defenbaugh to do the investigation, the results of which were released this year. You consider that an affront to your elected mandate to do this out of the DA’s office. So even though they were simply asking you whether you were investigating it or not and you said you couldn’t say, they took that to mean you were not. So you begrudged them even an attempt to move this forward.

Watkins: No, actually, I told two of the commissioners that we were investigating.

Smith: So they knew and said that they were going to put out their own investigation is regardless.

Watkins: Yes.

Smith: And you believe that was politics?

Watkins: I’m not going to speculate on what their motives were. It was pretty widely known that these individuals weren’t under investigation. In fact, the affidavits that are widely talked about in this case were done by the DA’s office, someone in conjunction with others in the DA’s office, and this was well before it was even publicized that there was an investigation.

Smith: The Defenbaugh report, which we said came out earlier this year. The result of this investigation, a 92-page report made very serious charges against, in particular, Constable Cortez, who has since been defeated for re-election and has announced plans to resign. It really alleges all kinds of corruption with the constable. Do you take any issue with findings in the report? Regardless of the motives behind it that the report doesn’t reflect the case as you see it.

Watkins: Well, I can tell you this: Based upon our investigation and what we’re seeing that this issue as it relates to the constables, it was small in comparison to the other things that we were finding out. It was one of those kind of things, I kind of correlate it to the Conviction Integrity Unit, and we start looking behind the curtain, and we see things that doesn’t make Dallas look good. As a result of this investigation, we started to see things that just didn’t make Dallas governement look good. The investigation, although it was about the constable at that point, it turned into other things.

Smith: For instance?

Watkins: I’m not at liberty to talk about those, because there is still an investigation, and there is still going to have to be at some point I believe maybe a prosecution. It’s just best left for the integrity of the process not to publicly debate this.

Smith: You understand that whether or not, with respect sir, you want to publically debate it, it is being publicly debated anyways. I may as well ask you about it and you can say that you don’t want to talk about it, but I’m going to ask you about it. So can you tell us if the two constables in questions are the only elected officials who are implicated in this?

Watkins: They’re not.

Smith: They’re not. Other elected officials in Dallas Country who are implicated in the same issue as Constable Cortez and Constable Evans?

Watkins: Those issues are very different. You have issues with the constables, and then you have issues with other elected official. I’m not going on record saying there is corruption in the higher levels of county government.

Smith: You’re saying that the investigation going on does touch on other elected officials in Dallas County.

Watkins: Yes.

Smith: Okay. You say that the Republican commissioners knew that there was an investigation going on and yet decided to launch their own investigation themselves. And you say that there was knowledge in Dallas County that you were working on this case regardless of what you’re willing to talk about in public. Yet I also say you quoted as saying that your office was understaffed and that there was an awful lot of work for your investigators for people to expect your investigators to be everywhere at one time. In August of '09 and then again in February of 2010, the attorney general of Texas offered to help, and as you well know, sir, that the attorney general’s office can not insert himself into a case like this. The law requires you to invite him in. So unless you invite him in, he can't simply say, "I’m going to come in because I perceive there to be a need you once rebuffed and then didn’t respond to offers from the attorney general to investigate." If your offices were truly understaffed, what was wrong with help from the AG’s office?

Watkins: The question has been asked: Craig, back in 2008 when you got elected, you invited the AG in to investigate a constable.

Smith: This was Mike Dupree, the constable that preceded Cortez in office. And you did bring the AG's office in then.

Watkins: I did. Up to that point I had been in office right at a year, and at that point the only impression or the only dealings I had had with the AG were basically what I read in the newspaper and some one those accounts weren’t in his favor. The things that I read in the newspaper about how he conducts himself. Out of good faith and believing in the system that everyone that is in a position to dispense justice is about justice. I went to the AG’s office and turned the case over. Unfortunately, over the last two years, it’s been proven that our philosophical approach to justice in Texas is very different, and as such we thought that in order for this case to be done correctly and for justice to be served, we had to keep it in house and not use the AG.

Smith: You don’t trust the attorney general?

Watkins: Well, I don’t want to go that far.

Smith: Go as far as you want to. But I want to understand fully what’s going on here. Do you not trust the attorney general of Texas?

Watkins: Let’s just leave it at this. His philosophical approach to how your dispense justice is different. So we will if need be just like in this case if there is a conflict of interest, then we will seek a special prosecutor outside of the AG.

Smith: In fact, you did seek a special prosecutor. You blessed a special prosecutor that was appointed within the last two weeks. Ted Lyon, who has served 14 years in the state Legislature, a Democrat and a past donor to your campaign. Given the charges that you are not handling the case properly, regardless of what you think of those … given the fact that you were charged somehow with not going after these two constables because they were Democrats. Why not seek an independent special prosecutor? Someone no one could attach for … why not get Toby Shook? The guy you beat? Or why not get Bill Hill? Why not get a Republican? Why not find a Patrick Fitzgerald type who can come in be the special prosecutor in this case and no one can say there was political influence in this case, and the person who they pick as special prosecutor is just ratify whatever the DA wants.

Watkins: At the end of the day, whoever I chose — if it weren’t the choices advocated by my opponents or any visitors on the commissioner’s court — they would find fault with that individual. The same argument could have been made when it was suggested by folks on the other side that I should get the attorney general. The question was never asked, is there politics being played because you want the AG, who happens to be in your party? The fact that Mr. Lyon donated $500 to me over the last three years …

Smith: Well, it’s not nothing.

Watkins: Five hundred dollars is of no consequence.

Smith: Are you going to give it back, so there is no perception of …

Watkins: I never thought about it, but if it’s going to make people feel a little bit better out it, I’ll give him his $500 back. I just think that Ted Lyon, that they’re doing a disservice to him by criticizing him. He’s a former police officer. He was head of the criminal justice committee here when he served in Austin, and he’s a 30-year lawyer. He is well-qualified for what he’s doing. I’ve come to the conclusion that during this next six-month period, during this election season probably, that I do is going to be criticized and we’re just going to have to accept that and move on and continue the work that we’re doing in Dallas County.

Smith: The status, so that people understand and we can wrap this up, the status is the special prosecutor has been appointed, you're out of it, and that investigation will take whatever time it takes but that it certainly will go beyond the election in November.

Watkins: I can’t speculate on that. There are other issues that Mr. Lyons is going to look into, and I don’t know if he’s going to be done by Nov. 2 or after that.

Smith: You understand that this will follow you around, that the press will be asking you about this between now and November.

Watkins: Obviously.

Smith: Obviously, up until today I’m not aware of you giving a sort of thorough accounting from your perspective. I mean I’ve read a lot of the Dallas Morning News accounts of your conversations with them asking you questions and you or your office saying they can’t talk about that. Are you willing to talk to the press going forward about this case, because as you know on the campaign trail, especially your opponent, they are already trying to make an issue of this?

Watkins: Obviously.

Smith: Do you have a problem — let me ask so broadly — do you have a problem with the media or the way the media has treated you on this case specifically?

Watkins: You know, I think we all have responsibilities, the you have responsibilities to the public just like I do. You want to make sure you get the story out there. But my responsibility is not about your story. It’s about making sure that justice is served, and if I am trying a case in the media, it is less likely that we’re going to see justice served. So I chose to take a stand, and I think that stand should be respected by the average citizen, your audience. Someone may find himself or herself under investigation for whatever, and I think it would be somewhat disingenuous if the local DA decided to play out the investigation in a newspaper before you even had your day in court. You hadn’t been found guilty yet and until you’ve had your day in court there is no need for the public to make a determination as to that person’s guilt or innocence, and so I can talk around the issue, but I won’t talk about the specific facts and the information I may know, because I don’t want to jeopardize that investigation or to harm a victim, someone that may be a victim in this case. Because when it comes to trial, if it does, they’re going to have to prove their case to a jury, and if I was an elected official and this information had be tried in the media, your perfect defense is, "This is just politics. They’re coming after me because of politics; look, all this was in the newspaper as apposed to doing a legitimate investigation and pursuing a prosecution."

Smith: Okay. Let met ask you one more question before I open this to the audience, You gave an interview to Emily Ramshaw, the Tribune earlier in the spring, in which you said, and I was in the room, and I confess that I sat up straight when I heard this because I thought the quote was quite memorable, “It’s a religious experience to vote for Craig Watkins.” That, by the way, is one of those moments as a reporter where you go, "Please be working, please be working" to your tape recorder.

Watkins: You know I didn’t mean that literally.

Smith: Well, I didn’t think you did, but I would like to know what you meant, because I think it’s quite a remarkable thing to say and said by the wrong person or taken the wrong way people would think, “What a schmuck.”

Watkins: They would.

Smith: And I wonder if you would talk about that.

Watkins: You know, I’m a deeply religious person. When I was growing up, going to church on Sundays was pretty much a given, and my parents were babies of the civil rights movement, so I’ve seen every PBS special on "Eyes on the Prize."

Smith: Public broadcasting, thank you.

Watkins: And so what I was saying is that I want to make voting like a religious experience. Its not something you think about — you just do it. And the success we’ve had other the last three years, a 99.4 conviction rate, the Conviction Integrity Unit, the crime rate’s been reduced by 6 percent, and the fact that we have restored credibility to our system. When we get that message out, we believe, when that message  is portrayed to the citizens of Dallas County, that there will be a religious experience for them to go and vote because they saw that their vote in 2006 made a difference. And not many people can say that. You look at the climate we’re in and the incumbency issue — a lot of folks are having problems with that, that are in office. According to polling, we’re not having that problem because people can actually point to how we did things differently and improved their lives as opposed to when I campaigned I said that I was going to do certain things that didn’t get done …

Smith: You’re not worried that the publicity over the constable stuff — which you’ll agree has dominated coverage of you — you’re not worried that this is going to turn your November election from something that shouldn’t have been a race, a real race?

Watkins: During campaign season, you have to worry about everything. You never know; there are factors unknown. I can tell you this: As we go forward, we’re going to continue to remind the public, “Hey, this is what we’ve done. On this one issue, you may disagree or agree with it. Are you going to base your decision on the success of the district attorney’s office over the last three years upon this one issue, or are you going to look from a totally standpoint and say hmmm, our justice system." And this is a question I’ll ask the voters: Is our justice system better today than it was four years ago? I think that even my opponents will have to agree to that.

Smith: District attorney, thank you very much for being here.

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