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Dallas County district attorney a hero to the wrongfully convicted

DALLAS — On the way to witness his first execution in the town known as the "Execution Capital of the World," the Dallas County district attorney stopped at the prison cemetery to find his great-grandfather's grave.

Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery in Huntsville is the final resting place of inmates whose families could not afford burial anywhere else. Tall pines guard the grassy expanse nicknamed "Peckerwood Hill," where many gravestones bear prison identification numbers, not names.

Dist. Atty. Craig Watkins scanned row upon row of gray crosses and headstones, making quick progress in his usual cowboy boots until he found the boxy stone belonging to Richard Johnson, dated Aug. 10, 1932.

Watkins knelt beside the grave in his suit.

Engraved next to Johnson's prisoner number — 101 — was a telltale X. His great-grandfather had been executed.

His dual missions that day in February — paying respects, witnessing the execution — embodied how Watkins, Texas' first African American district attorney, grapples with his role in meting out justice.

Although morally opposed to capital punishment — he calls it "an archaic form of justice" — Watkins has sought the death penalty in nine cases, obtaining it in eight. He requested to see this execution, ordered before he took office, to fully experience the criminal justice system.

Even as he enforces the law, Watkins cites evidence of a flawed system. He has emerged as a leader in a growing national movement to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners, most of them black men.

"As an African American, you always have a doubt about the criminal justice system," he said.

A few days after Watkins, then 38, was elected to his first term in 2006, a Dallas police officer stopped him in his black $100,000 Mercedes G500 SUV.

"Whose car is this?" the officer asked.

Watkins, who at 6-foot-4 is imposing even when seated, explained that he was the new district attorney.

"He had this surprised look on his face," Watkins said.

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Watkins says people often assume he grew up poor in the slums of south Dallas. He actually grew up in the middle-class Oak Cliff neighborhood, the son of teachers.

But he did have relatives who ran afoul of the law. When he visited the Huntsville prison as the district attorney, he was startled to recognize a visitor's room. He had sat there as a child, waiting to see an incarcerated uncle.

Watkins did not set out to right wrongs when he entered historically black Prairie View A&M University as an engineering major. A political science class and politically active relatives — an uncle was a four-term president of the local NAACP chapter — inspired him to go into public service.

He earned his degree in political science, went to Texas Wesleyan University School of Law and thought working as a prosecutor would lay the foundation for a political career.

When the Dallas district attorney's office rejected him three times — he's not sure why — Watkins worked for the public defender and city attorney instead.

In 2002, still a fledgling lawyer with a wife and young children, Watkins decided to run against Dist. Atty. Bill Hill. He lost, but garnered 48% of the vote.

Four years later, Hill announced he would not seek reelection. Instead, Watkins this time faced off against a prosecutor with more than 20 years' experience. His great-grandfather's story remained secret, as critics focused on his age and charged that he was too much of a novice to handle a staff of 250 lawyers and an annual budget of $36 million.

A backlash against then-President George W. Bushswept Republicans from power in the Dallas area and helped Watkins eke out a victory with 51% of the vote.

His first week in office, Watkins made two decisions that would change the course of his career.

Dallas is one of few cities that stores forensic evidence dating back to 1969, when the crime lab was created followingPresident Kennedy's assassination. But storing evidence costs money, and county leaders asked him to start destroying old evidence.

He refused.

That same week, Watkins heard that a prisoner convicted under a previous district attorney was being exonerated based on DNA evidence. Watkins attended the hearing, and a reporter happened to be there.

"I apologized to the guy, the reporter wrote a story and it just caught fire — a D.A. will admit that they're wrong!" Watkins recalled.

Suddenly, activists were calling him about other problematic cases. A member of his staff suggested starting a unit to investigate suspect convictions.

Watkins hesitated. He thought about his nascent political career. He had planned so carefully.

"I was under so much scrutiny, not just this office but the outside — the media — thinking, 'He's not qualified.' "

But if he didn't do it, who would?

He persuaded county leaders to spend about $450,000 to create the country's first conviction integrity unit: two prosecutors, an investigator and a paralegal.

By the time the unit started work in 2007, 400 prisoners convicted in Dallas County had appealed under a 2001 state law to have their DNA tested against evidence.

Start there, Watkins said.

The unit began reviewing cases and sharing files with the New York-based Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of Texas in Lubbock and defense attorneys. Based on DNA tests, it appeared there were potential problems with about half the cases, but it would take time to fully investigate.

By the time Watkins was up for reelection in 2010, his unit had helped exonerate about a dozen prisoners. Though critics complained he was thin-skinned, that he squabbled unnecessarily with county leaders, the exonerations proved popular and he was reelected by the same slim margin.

Just a year earlier at a family reunion, Watkins had noticed a binder full of information about his great-grandfather. Growing up he'd heard vague comments about the execution but did not know details — how Johnson had walked to the electric chair singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." He read how Johnson had been convicted of murdering a white Fort Worth man by an all-white jury that deliberated for less than 40 minutes.

But Watkins didn't reveal his family's secret until February, a few days before witnessing the execution in Huntsville. He brought it up after attending an exoneration hearing for Richard Miles, a black man who spent 14 years behind bars for a murder and attempted murder he didn't commit.

"People don't know," Watkins said, "that my great-grandfather was executed by this state. And so that's an issue we need to explore, as it relates to our justice system. Are we doing the right thing?"

A flurry of questions followed: Did Watkins think his great-grandfather was wrongfully convicted? (He'd read the trial transcript and had doubts about his guilt.) Did he now oppose the death penalty? (He still had reservations but would apply it.)

"What's really different about Craig Watkins is it is rare for a public official to have a public dialogue and admit he's not sure of aspects of the system," said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Austin-based Texas Defender Service.

So far, Watkins' office has helped exonerate 25 inmates, including two men last week, all prosecuted under predecessors. Both had received life sentences for a 1983 rape and shooting. Seven other men exonerated under Watkins were serving life terms as well. Still, in cases prosecuted by his office, the conviction rate is 99.4%.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said prosecutors have long feared that exposing wrongful convictions will undermine public confidence in their work. "Craig has proven that exactly the opposite happens," Scheck said. "If you become known as the district attorney's office that has a conviction integrity unit, if you bring a case before a jury, they will trust you more."

Now district attorneys from Manhattan to Santa Clara have followed Watkins' example and started similar units. The district attorney in Houston, a Republican former police officer, also launched one.

Watkins' approach still alarms some prosecutors. John Bradley, a Republican district attorney in Williamson County, outside Austin, thinks such units are unnecessary because prosecutors already dedicate staff to appeals and DNA analysis, and he has told Watkins so via email.

"We have conviction integrity every time we receive and screen a case," Bradley said. "We need to be investing all we can in how we do our job now so we will be less likely to have them reviewed in the future."

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This spring, Watkins was at the Dallas crime lab watching from the back as the head of the conviction integrity unit explained its mission to members of the D.A.'s first citizens academy, which teaches residents how the office works.

Prosecutor Russell Wilson flipped to a photograph of Charles Allen Chatman, convicted of aggravated rape in 1981 and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Chatman refused parole because it would have meant admitting guilt. With help from Watkins' office, he was granted new DNA testing.

"The test results excluded him and he was exonerated," Wilson said, "And he's here tonight."

The audience of about 40 gasped and erupted in applause as a burly man in a blue dress shirt rose from their midst, shaved head gleaming, and approached the microphone. Chatman, 51, had been imprisoned for 26 years.

A hush fell over the room. Chatman looked to the back of the room, to the now familiar tall figure in suit and cowboy boots.

"I took care of myself in jail," Chatman said. "I never thought I'd say another man was my hero. But this man right here is my hero."

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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