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We need a Conviction Integrity Unit in Harris County

From the DMN:

Craig Watkins

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has gained a national reputation for spearheading prisoner exonerations.

As he prepares to seek a third term, Watkins said Thursday he wants to expand on that role and add a few others. …

Watkins, a Democrat who was first elected in 2006, gained attention for using DNA tests to overturn convictions, and he said his office has a few more such cases pending.

When prosecutors finish with those next year, Watkins said, he wants his team to take another look at people convicted of arson and those accused of shaking their babies to death. Watkins said he has concerns about the science used in the prosecution of both types of cases.

“The science has changed. We need to revisit it,” Watkins said without elaborating.

That was via Grits for Breakfast, who adds the following:

With the passage of SB 344 by Whitmire/Turner, people convicted based on junk science now have a clear path to pursue habeas corpus writs to challenge their convictions, with old arson and shaken-baby cases high on the list of bad science likely to be challenged. It will be welcome news if Watkins takes leadership and gets out in front of those issues the way he did on DNA testing. The main difference will be that, until the Legislature changed the law in 2011 (SB 122 by Ellis), DAs could prevent DNA testing in old cases if they chose, just as Williamson County DA John Bradley thwarted testing in the Michael Morton case for many years simply by objecting. By contrast, the passage of SB 344 means junk science cases can now get back into court via habeas writs on their own, so Watkins and other District Attorneys will be forced to revisit them whether they want to or not.

Craig Watkins has done groundbreaking work in Dallas reviewing old convictions for which DNA evidence was available to allow for it. This was possible in part because Dallas County obsessively kept all their old case evidence, but it was Watkins who had the vision to look at old cases where the potential existed for a conviction that had been based on potentially shaky evidence and for which a more definitive answer could be established. Dozens of wrongly convicted men were freed as a result. DNA evidence only exists in a small percentage of cases, but there are other kinds of cases that can and should be reviewed, beginning with the “junk science” cases highlighted in SB344. It’s way past time for Harris County to conduct a systematic review of its own of old cases to see which of them deserve a closer look. We will be under the mandate of SB344 for some of these cases, but there’s no reason to limit ourselves, or to wait till the last minute. It’s beyond question that there are people currently in jail after being convicted in Harris County that are provably innocent of the crimes they were convicted for. In some cases, as with the just-released “San Antonio Four”, the crime in question never actually occurred. We already have to take action for some of these. Let’s commit to doing a thorough and exhaustive job of it. I look forward to hearing what Devon Anderson and Kim Ogg have to say about this.

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One Comment

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    I agree totally. Those innocents without the means to fight specious charges are at a very real risk of getting railroaded.