MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
2013 saw a record number of exonerations in the U.S.; 87 prisoners were set free after they were shown to have been falsely convicted of crimes. That's according to a study of exoneration, released this week by law school researchers who study these cases.
Craig Watkins has been a trailblazer in re-examining questionable convictions. And what's surprising is that he's a prosecutor. He's the district attorney of Dallas County. When he took office, he created a Conviction Integrity Office, the first of its kind in the country.
And DA Watkins joins me now from Dallas to talk about how that's worked. Welcome to the program.
CRAIG WATKINS: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And help us understand what drove your decision to create this unit within the DA's office in the first place.
WATKINS: Well, it all came down to credibility. You know, I grew up in Texas in Dallas. And obviously, as an African-American, I have issues with law enforcement. And in order for law enforcement to work for all the citizens, of individuals I represent, I thought that we needed to take a legitimate look at claims of innocence. And, as a result of that, not only did we free individuals that didn't commit crimes but we also learned a lot about our justice system and how we can make improvements.
BLOCK: Well, what do you learn? I mean, as you've gone back and re-examined cases, what mistakes have you uncovered and how does it change how you handle prosecutions?
WATKINS: Yeah, what we've learned is that some of the techniques used in investigating cases and even pursuing prosecutions were flawed. We've learned that of the exonerations that we've had here, 90 percent of the individuals were identified correctly. So we decided to go to the double-blind system and convince the different municipalities within Dallas County to take a look at how they present potential assailants to victims and witnesses.
We've also learned that storing biological evidence needs to be done in such a way that at some point it could be tested in the future. And we've learned that it's not always allowable for us to solely rely on testimony of a co-defendant. And so we decided to persuade our different municipalities and law enforcement agencies not only to bring us the case where there is co-defendant testimony, but to go even further and get information from outside witnesses.
BLOCK: You know, you do hear this criticism that the prosecutors' job is to convict people, to send them to prison. It's really up to defense attorneys and the appeals process to clear them. So I wonder if you feel you're at all at cross purposes here.
WATKINS: No, actually I think people actually don't understand the role of a prosecutor. In fact, you know, it's defined in our Code of Criminal Procedure here in Texas - and I would imagine that, you know, in every Code of Criminal Procedures throughout every state, it defines what a prosecutor is. And it specifically says that a prosecutor is not to convict but to seek justice. And so, if a person is being wrongfully convicted it's the responsibility of the prosecutor - not the defense attorney - to make sure that that wrong is righted; to make sure that not only is a person exonerated but to also seek the individual that actually committed the crime.
BLOCK: What is a conversation like with victims of some of these crimes when you have to go back and say, look, we're sorry, we convicted the wrong person and he's getting out of prison?
WATKINS: When you tell a victim, who's got it set in their mind that 20 years ago a person committed this crime against me and they have been in prison all this time, and you tell them - well, that person was not the person that committed the crime, it's hard for them to accept. But what we did see is that when we were able to find the actual individual that committed the crime, we saw that they were more self-satisfied to know that, well, even though I made a mistake 20 years ago, the person actually committed the crime, the prosecution didn't stop with the exoneration; but they went forward to pursue a prosecution against the person that actually committed the crime.
BLOCK: How often does that happen? Do you know what the percentage of cases would be where there's been exoneration and then a conviction of someone else for the same crime?
WATKINS: We've had 33 exonerations. And we've, believe, tried three cases where we actually found the individual that committed the crime.
BLOCK: Mr. Watkins, you mentioned earlier that you are African-American. You were actually Texas's first African-American district attorney. And I wonder how you think your experience as a black male has shaped your views of criminal justice and exoneration, in particular.
WATKINS: Yeah, obviously my point of view of the criminal justice system would be somewhat different than your traditional DA in Texas. Being an African-American male in this state has lent itself to a distrust of law enforcement. So one of the main reasons I ran for DA was to make law enforcement work for people that look like me.
But it's not limited to an issue of, you know, African-Americans. It transcends the color line. And my role and my goal is to make sure that law enforcement works for everyone.
BLOCK: Mr. Watkins, thanks for talking with us today.
WATKINS: All right, thank you.
BLOCK: Craig Watkins is the district attorney of Dallas County. He created the first Conviction Integrity Unit in the country. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.