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Dallas Conviction Integrity Unit Gains National Notoriety

The word “first” was applied to Craig M. Watkins multiple times after his election to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office in 2006. He was the county’s first black D.A., the first D.A. who had been a public defender before being elected prosecutor and the first D.A. to establish a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in Dallas.

The CIU turned the culture at the prosecutors’ office on its head. Previously, convictions were to be had at all costs and defended to the end. Henry Wade, one of Watkins’ predecessors, was famously quoted as having said that it was easy to convict a guilty man; it was the innocent ones who were a bit more difficult. That reflected a culture where the only thing that mattered was winning a conviction, not the guilt or innocence of the defendant.

The culture changed when Watkins set up the CIU. Due to the “save it all” policy at the Southwest Institute for Forensic Sciences, Dallas County was sitting on a mound of forensic evidence from past cases. So the CIU began an internal audit of the over 400 cases in which a prisoner had requested DNA testing.

“There was an unspoken desire for us to fail,” said Mike Ware, a Fort Worth attorney who was the CIU’s first chief. “What we were doing was contrary to conventional thinking, and we knew it was going to make traditional allies upset with us.”

But the CIU, which is now the longest-running in the United States, was a huge success. Thus far, 33 prisoners have been exonerated and freed. As of March 2014, the CIU was still actively investigating 30 cases and had a 200-case backlog. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.40]. Watkins left office in 2015 but the CIU remains as his legacy.

District attorneys around the country began to take note of Dallas’ Conviction Integrity Unit; instead of focusing on the failures that led to wrongful convictions, the news media applauded the D.A.’s continuing search for the truth. Many prosecutors are elected and look upon good press as manna from heaven.

“Nothing was going on in Texas that wasn’t going on anywhere else in the country,” noted Gary Udashen, a Dallas defense attorney who serves as president of the Innocence Project of Texas. “Every county should do what Dallas has done.”

Some counties have. The first CIU was established in Santa Clara County, California in 2002. Today there are CIUs in at least two dozen major district attorneys’ offices, including those in Detroit, Philadelphia and Cleveland, plus the Brooklyn borough of New York City. While the number of CIUs has “quadrupled since 2011,” there are more than 2,300 prosecutors’ offices across the U.S. – meaning there’s plenty of room for expansion.

The Dallas Morning News reported in February 2016 that more than 1,730 people have been exonerated since 1989 and the rate of exonerations has increased due to new developments in forensic science, particularly DNA evidence. The proliferation of CIUs, and the political will of some prosecutors to “right the wrongs of the past,” has unsurprisingly contributed to the rise in exonerations. An all-time high of almost 150 wrongfully convicted offenders – of which 58 were proven innocent thanks to CIUs – was reported in 2015.

The Brooklyn CIU office has exonerated people at an unprecedented rate since D.A. Ken Thompson was elected in 2014. As of February 2016, the office had overturned 19 wrongful convictions. In the lead, however, is the CIU in Harris County, Texas. Together with two other offices, the Houston-based unit was responsible for roughly 90 percent of all CIU exonerations last year. Around half the CIUs nationwide have yet to overturn a single conviction.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations’ 2015 annual report, there could be tens of thousands of wrongful convictions annually in the United States, and many prisoners are already serving sentences for crimes they did not commit. Even with new evidence, overturning a wrongful conviction takes time. Sometimes a lot of time.

On April 8, 2016, the Dallas Morning News profiled the case of Darryl Adams, who was convicted of rape. DNA evidence indicated he did not commit the crime for which he was convicted two decades ago; the alleged victim passed away about 15 years ago, and the DA’s office is still deciding what to do with his case. Adams has been granted a new trial and released on bond, but whether he is exonerated remains to be seen.

The Manhattan CIU, which has reviewed 140 cases, reversed only three convictions. Those not reversed included the controversial murder case of Jon-Adrian Velazquez, which has drawn attention from the media and raised doubts about Velaquez’s guilt. This is an indication that while CIUs are a welcome addition to the criminal justice system, they are not a panacea for wrongful convictions.

“The publicity the units receive has helped generate an atmosphere in which the issue of exonerations is more important to prosecutors,” said Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. “It’s something you get political points for.”

But politics is often a game of appearance, not substance. Some prosecutors may use their CIUs to quell potential bad publicity when they know an exoneration is imminent.

“Most of these Cl Units remind me of [George] Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in [his novel] 1984,” said Rob Warden, executive director of the Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. “They’re window dressing.”

Lacking any external oversight or relationships with defense attorneys and Innocence Projects, he may have a point.

“Trust us to look into these cases, trust us to bring them to the attention of the courts. The problem, of course, is that the trust isn’t there – and for good reason, “ noted Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed.

The vast majority of the exonerations since 1989 have been obtained by Innocence Projects, not by CIUs, and prosecutors have been disciplined in less than 2% of the estimated 3,625 cases involving prosecutorial misconduct over the past four decades. [See: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.1; Aug. 2011, p.12].

Absent accountability for prosecutors it is doubtful there will ever be any true integrity with respect to wrongful convictions, no matter how many CIUs are established.


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