Sunday, May 4, 2008

New Dallas D.A.Craig Watkins and the Innocence Project of Texas - Real "Change We Can Believe In"

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.


The First Domino said...

Again, this is part of our national shame that so many are convicted with the weakest of evidence.

And, if you're black, little or no evidence is need outside of your blackness to assure a conviction.

I missed the 60 Minutes segment, but have seen several of the Innocence Project documented efforts to free certain inmates. I respect their doggedness, dedication, and zeal to see the innocent exonerated.

You'd think that any DA, black or white, would be as eager as Dallas District Attorney, Craig Watkins to correct the wrongs of the system.

Alas, we've come a long way, but the journey to justice and freedom is still a long, lonely road.

Deb said...

the first domino...Yes, this continues to be a huge part of our national shame, though I'd say for the most part, Americans - both Black and white, still prefer not to acknowledge or address it - which is why I found this story so inspiring.

Many of us now, have succeeded in areas in which our participation was, heretofore, minimal. But very few have concentrated on righting the wrongs perpetrated on our own people for fear of losing that prestige, that privilege, that opportunity to keep rising -those dollar bills.

The criminal justice system is a glaring example of exactly that, particularly since, as you say, "if you're black, little or no evidence is needed outside of your blackness to assure a conviction." That this BLACK man - now having access to the prestige, privilege, opportunity to keep rising and the dollar bills - chose to stand up and do something about it in a way that many before him could and should have, makes me proud.

We agree, "You'd think that any DA, black or white, would be as eager ..." but let's be real, the chances of those who perpetrated and abetted the continuance of this injustice changing how they "do business" are slim (The Innocence Projct) and none. I fully expected the changing of the status quo to come from US (Thurgood Marshall comes to mind), since it's been and continues to be our people disproportionately affected. Needless to say, as we'd talked about expectations in another post, I'd been pretty much disheartened.

I will, however, temper my joy with continued vigilance regarding D.A. Watkins, because you just never know what anyone's motivations are - especially these days! But right now, I'm a little happy! :-)

"Alas, we've come a long way, but the journey to justice and freedom is still a long, lonely road."

Yep, and the beat goes on....

The First Domino said...

Deb, you haven't posted for awhile, and I was getting worried about you.

I hope all is well. I wanted you to know that your presence is missed out here in cyberspace.

No one challenges me in the way you do. Your thoughts are clear, reasoned, and impassioned.

Further, you can tolerate those of us who may hold an opinion counter to yours.

Who could ask for anything more?

When you're ready, of course, we'll be here to pounce on [no, strike that :)] to appreciate and comment on whatever is your topic du jour.


Deb said...

the first domino...Namaste and thank you so very much for checking in on me. Your instincts are not only timely, but dead-on.

There has been so much going on in my life around which I have been trying my best to wrap my head these past few weeks. Not sure I've accomplished that task, but I keep working on it.

Your comment is one I will hold close, refer to often and lean on when I, quiet-as-it's-kept, question my own voice. :-) I'm sure you have no clue how much it means to me. But that's okay, I do.

I have to tell you, I'd started three posts which I've not been able to finish since the last one. Your thinking of me has been an inspiration - I will finish them and look forward to you dropping in and "pouncing," (probably what I need right now to stimulate that part of my brain currently overcome by emotions with which I've had problems dealing.:-)

I'll be fine. And again, thanks for checking.

The First Domino said...

Deb, I know you through your writings only, and I'm impressed.

Thanks for responding so promptly. I can relax a little now.

If it's OK with you, I'll keep you in my prayers, just in case.

Hurry back, and know that you're missed and cared about.

Postscript: I know better than to pry, but if you ever need an ear to listen non-judgmentally as you sort through your emotions, you may call upon me.


Deb said...

the first domino...thanx, thanx and YES, please do keep me in your prayers!

I'm trying, slowly but surely, to get some of these drafts out of here because the beat keeps going on and I need to catch up! Hell Obama and Clinton are here in Miami and I DO have a few thoughts about that! :-)

Thanx for the offer, I'll keep that in mind. I'm feeling better, simply because I need to. So-o-o, I'm picking myself up, brushing myself off and starting all over again. I'll keep at it til I get it - no other option. Appreciate your checking in.

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