Craig Watkins, the pioneering district attorney in Dallas County who was also the first Black person to be a top prosecutor in the state of Texas and had a reputation for freeing innocent people wrongly convicted, died on Tuesday. He was 56.
Watkins’ death was confirmed by his family to the Dallas Morning News. The cause of Watkins’ death was not immediately reported.
— Austin York (@realAustinYork) December 12, 2023
A Dallas native and HBCU graduate, Watkins worked as a public defender up until his historic election as the district attorney of Dallas County in 2006, marking not just the first time a Black person had held the powerful position but also the first time a Black person was elected as a district attorney in the entire Lone Star State. He held the position for nearly a decade.
Since entering office as a Democrat in 2007, Watkins dedicatedly re-opened old cases in question after establishing a conviction integrity unit. Relying on DNA and in some cases the Texas branch of the Innocence Project, Watkins’ office investigated claims of innocence that eventually resulted in more than a dozen men having their convictions overturned.
Among them is a man who spent 27 years in prison for the rape of two girls that DNA testing proved he did not commit.
Another man, who spent 31 years behind bars for a 99-year sentence, had his conviction vacated because he did not receive a fair trial.
“This is just basically saying there was prosecutorial misconduct that happened in 1981, and if a jury had known all of the information, it may have come back with a different verdict,” Watkins said about that case.
Re-elected as Dallas’ D.A. in 2010, the Wall Street Journal described him at the time as the “only prosecutor in America who is making his name getting people out of prison.”
Watkins suggested that his race played a role in his work securing the overturning of wrongful convictions – something that he said invoked both anger and support from the community.
“I’ve seen the failures of the criminal justice system up close,” Watkins told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2012, “being an African American and an attorney, I got to see that…. A lot of people are surprised that a district attorney would be concerned with this whole thing of innocence,” he said. “But I’m surprised that they think that — what we’re doing is really what a DA should do.”
Watkins was a criminal justice pioneer in Dallas
Critics called Watkins a “criminal-loving” prosecutor who liked to “hug-a-thug,” but he shrugged off those opinions as being uninformed.
“Everybody thought: first African American, he’s never been a prosecutor, only a defense attorney. His first official act is to review old cases. They were just thinking I was a prosecutor in sheep’s clothing,” Watkins told the Guardian in 2010. “But there was a problem of credibility in the system. You’ve got to have integrity in the process. I was looking to ensure that victims get their day in court and that we get the right person because it’s not justice if you don’t.”
Aside from working to overturn wrongful convictions and address police corruption, Watkins left behind an enduring legacy of advocating for other everyday citizens, particularly homeowners.
In 2011, Watkins’ office sued the Mortgage Electronic Registration System, the private mortgage registry caught in the middle of the foreclosure crisis, for possibly shorting Dallas County out of millions of dollars in filing fees.
Watkins called the lawsuit “the first step to recoup the tens of millions in uncollected filing fees owed to the citizens of Dallas County.”
The Botham Jean-Amber Guyger case
Watkins failed to be reelected in 2014 but remained actively involved in local issues.
Notably, he shared his opinion in the early stages of the police shooting of Botham Jean, an unarmed Black man killed in his own apartment in 2018 by Amber Guyger, an off-duty officer who purportedly confused his home for hers and thought the 27-year-old was an intruder.
At the time, newly elected Dallas District Attorney John Creuzot, who is African-American, said “the most appropriate charge” for the white officer who fired the fatal shot was murder—not manslaughter.
But Watkins suggested that Creuzot may want to tone down any rhetoric that might prove hard to back up since convicting a cop of anything has always been an uphill battle.
“You can’t determine what direction you would go in by news accounts because they don’t have all the information and evidence,” Watkins told NewsOne in an interview at the time. “So it may be somewhat premature and maybe irresponsible to basically make that kind of statement without knowing all the facts.”
Watkins added: “It’s a precarious situation to make a statement that it should be a murder case without knowing the facts.”
That wasn’t criticism, though, as Watkins also said it was “noble” of Creuzot “to want to pursue the highest charge” and correctly predicted the DA would “vigorously prosecute in this case.”
Creuzot remembered Watkins as being “perfectly human, and those who knew him are better for it. I am proud to have known him, to have worked with him, and to have been elected to the same office he held. He will be missed.”
Watkins graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college, before earning his J.D. from the Texas Wesleyan University School of Law.
He was born in Dallas on Nov. 16. 1967, and is survived by his wife, Tanya, and their three children.
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