I watched 60 Minutes tonight and I have to say, the first segment, featuring new Dallas District Attorney, Craig Watkins, made the hair stand up on the back of my neck and all I could think of was Chris Matthews' "My! I felt this thrill going up my leg!" comment on Sen. Obama's big, "race" speech. Why? Because this Black man is in the process of "transforming the burning house" that is the Texas legal system - the exact requirement about which Dr. Cornell West spoke during a previous State of the Black Union.
The segment had to do with men who had been wrongfully convicted and exonerated by DNA evidence. I was listening to it while I was writing a blog post about New Orleans, but I had to stop writing when I heard this: "When he took office last year, Craig Watkins became the first Black District Attorney in the history of Texas. He is 40 years old, a lawyer, with no previous experience prosecuting felonies, but a lot of ideas about criminal justice."
Having lived in Texas for seven years and having my two, twenty-something year old sons now living there again because they think of it as home, I spun around to give the TV my undivided attention. Listen to this part of the interview and if you can honestly tell me THIS is not inspiring, I'll have to, respectfully, call you a liar. (I'm no computer wonk, so you have to stop the video after this piece or you'll get some other story - same for the link below).
Mr. Watkins has joined forces with the Innocence Project of Texas, backing them with subpoena power as well as opening up all the prosecution's files to the Project's lawyers and law students. He is using his position to effect real change where it is needed - to assist them in their quest to give voice to the voiceless, wrongfully convicted under the reign (or should I say siege?) of former Dallas top prosecutor for 30 years, Henry Wade.
He's only been the D.A. since last year, but as of last Tuesday, with his help, The Innocence Project has freed 17 men. The 17th, was James Woodward. Convicted of raping and murdering his former girlfriend 27 years and four months ago, he was the longest serving inmate in the nation, cleared with the help of DNA evidence. On the day he was released, Mr. Watkins apologized, not only for the part the Texas D.A.'s office played in this awful miscarriage of justice, but for the failures of the entire criminal justice system. Seems he's not afraid of upsetting white folks. Judge Mark C. Stoltz said, before banging that gavel, "Mr. Woodward, unfortunately, you're not getting justice today, you're just getting the end of injustice." Pretty stand-up guy for a Texas judge.
The student who chose Mr. Woodward's case and saw it through to the end, amazingly, had not even been born when he went to prison! That really puts into perspective how long this kind of shit has been going on without anyone, Black or white, stepping up to the plate and saying, "Hey! Stop this!" The Innocence Project still has 250 more cases to review. (I'm telling you, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, co-founders and co-directors of the Innocence Project, have more than redeemed themselves!).
Scott Pelley put this question to Mr. Woodward. "All you had to do to get out, to get parole was to tell them you did it, why didn't you?" Mr. Woodward succinctly replied, "Because I didn't do it. A man has to stand for something." I hope the senator from Illinois watched this and paid close attention to that very last line.