Black District Attorney Frees The Innocent

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This Black History Month, we honor the GAME CHANGERS: Everyday heroes whose actions make life better for the people around them.

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DA Craig WatkinsCraig Watkins

Age: 43

Place of Residence: Dallas, Texas

Why he is a local hero: Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins has used DNA to free men and women who were wrongly convicted of crimes.

It’s easy to feel a sense of despair about the fairness of our country’s justice system when you hear statistics like these from the Innocence Project: Of the 289 post-conviction exoneration cases using DNA, 70 percent of those jailed were minorities.

Enter Watkins.

Re-elected as Dallas’ D.A. in 2010, the Wall Street Journal described him as the “only prosecutor in America who is making his name getting people out of prison.”

Since entering office in 2007, Watkins has re-opened old cases in question after establishing a conviction integrity unit. He relies on DNA in some cases and has invited the Texas branch of the Innocence Project to help investigate claims of innocence. So far, more than a dozen men have had their convictions overturned.

Among them are a man who spent 27 years in prison for the rape of two girls that DNA testing proved he did not commit. Another man, who spent 31 years behind bars of a 99-year sentence, recently had his conviction vacated because he did not receive a fair trial.

“This is just basically saying there was prosecutorial misconduct that happened in 1981, and if a jury had known all of the information, it may have come back with a different verdict,” Watkins said about the case.

It’s what his office should be doing, says Watkins who has gained both fans and critics for his efforts.

“I’ve seen the failures of the criminal justice system up close,” Watkins told the Star-Telegram, “being an African American and an attorney, I got to see that…. A lot of people are surprised that a district attorney would be concerned with this whole thing of innocence,” he says. “But I’m surprised that they think that — what we’re doing is really what a DA should do.”

And Watkins appears intent on tackling injustices elsewhere. Last year, he filed suit against the Mortgage Electronic Registration System, the private mortgage registry caught in the middle of the foreclosure crisis, for possibly shorting Dallas County out of millions of dollars in filing fees.

“This is the first step to recoup the tens of millions in uncollected filing fees owed to the citizens of Dallas County,” Watkins said in a release.

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