TX Conviction Integrity Unit Shifts Focus To Systemic Improvement


It’s been almost a year since Dallas County’s last DNA exoneree. The flood of exonerations in the county, where since 2001 more wrongfully convicted people have been freed through DNA testing than anywhere else in the nation, is slowing to a trickle, says the Dallas Morning News. There are only so many cases where genetic evidence is available to test. Now, the emphasis of the conviction integrity unit established by District Attorney Craig Watkins in 2007 is shifting toward challenging cases where there is no DNA to test, but where questions remain about an inmate’s guilt or innocence.

Without DNA evidence, these cases require more time and can mean investigating a crime that occurred years ago as though it just happened: tracking down witnesses, comparing fingerprints to see if there is a match when one didn’t exist before, seeking new evidence. Watkins says he hopes his office can use lessons learned during years of DNA testing to improve police work. Bad witness identification, for example, has been a factor in most of Dallas’ DNA exonerations. There are also several cases where prosecutors or police withheld evidence that could have prevented a conviction. Watkins said his perspective has changed since the unit began. He’s realized that it can do much more than free the innocent. At the time, I started out looking at legitimate claims of innocence, and obviously we still do,” said Watkins. “But now, it’s how can we improve prosecutor and police techniques. It’s about the ability to argue for changes in the law.”

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