Since Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins took office in 2007, incidents of wrongfully convicted men being released from Texas prisons have become almost commonplace, thanks to his office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, established in 2007 to review potential wrongful convictions, says the Dallas Observer. Out of 17 exonerations in Dallas since 2007, there were only four cases without biological evidence.
Watkins faced a backlog of about 500 cases involving DNA evidence that had previously been denied testing and that would, in many cases, prove guilt or innocence. In the first couple years of the Conviction Integrity Unit’s existence, DNA-based exonerations rolled out every few months. Most were old sexual assault cases in which semen from a rape kit was still available for modern-day tests. With many staff changes, public defender Michelle Moore worries that the unit’s gears are sticking and cases that could be moving forward more quickly are stalled. “I think I see the tendency now to be overly cautious and it’s to the detriment of the innocent man,” she says. The sheer number of DNA exonerations — and the efforts to uncover how the courts failed so miserably — have revealed troubling gaps in the criminal justice system: Eyewitnesses are more fallible than jurors might think; forensic evidence isn’t always reliable or interpreted correctly; the way police run lineups can lead to wrongful convictions. The trouble is, those problems may just as easily plague cases in which no DNA exists.