TheGrio’s 100: Craig Watkins, a Texas DA using DNA for justice

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In January 2007, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins became the first black District Attorney in all of Texas. He didn’t realize he was making state history until a state senator mentioned the accomplishment in a speech after Watkins’ inauguration ceremony.

Since taking office, Watkins has continued to break new ground, shining a national spotlight on the need to ensure the integrity of criminal convictions. The Dallas DA established a partnership with the Innocence Project of Texas, a non profit that works to overturn wrongful convictions. Watkins gave the organization access to hundreds of cases, and he created the nation’s first-ever Conviction Integrity Unit within the district attorney’s office.

More than 20 men have been exonerated under the partnership. The testing of preserved DNA evidence has been the key factor. Watkins, dubbed a “Hug-a-Thug D.A.,” says he would like to see other district attorneys across the country launch similar programs.

The overturned Dallas cases came from an era before DNA testing was available. Watkins cites a prevalent attitude that DAs have been expected to win convictions at all costs. To avoid future wrongful convictions, he implemented a change in that philosophy and encourages other DAs to seek justice, not just rack up courtroom wins.

Watkins’ accomplishments in Dallas County have garnered national attention. His effort to free innocent people became the subject of the TV series Dallas DNA, which first aired on Investigation Discovery Channel last spring.

Watkins faces re-election later this year. With his now national profile, many are asking if the married father of three has bigger positions in mind for his future. Watkins insists that he only wants to be re-elected as Dallas County DA. Nevertheless, he has been able to inspire political fundraisers around the country, a feat that’s generally unheard of for a local official who plans to stay put.