The Conviction Integrity Unit that Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins began in 2006 has become a national model and has spread to a handful of other counties, says the Christian Science Monitor. Some similar units are window dressing created mostly for public relations, critics say. The Dallas unit has had a profound impact in the city and has come at a time when concerns about wrongful convictions are rippling through the justice system. As exonerations force prosecutors to reconsider their role in public safety, Watkins has cast himself as a leading reformer, taking on the insular culture within district attorneys' offices and challenging the credo that the most effective district attorney is the one who wins the most convictions.
“One overriding truth is that the prosecutor is by far the most important and powerful actor in the criminal justice system,” says Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. The Dallas unit is about much more than just the innocence of 33 people it has freed, some say. “In 10 years we'll look back and say we began a process in Texas that fundamentally changed attitudes about the whole meaning of justice in this country,” says Jeff Blackburn, founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, one of a patchwork of innocence projects across the U.S.