Conviction Integrity Unit- A good idea

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has done something unusual with his tenure as being District Attorney. In 2007, he established a Conviction Integrity Unit. He has set aside a portion of his budget and human resources to look over old cases and determine through the use of DNA whether or not the convictions are sound. While most DAs seek to preserve a conviction by any means, it seems as if DA Watkins has taken the unusual step to use resources to insure that past convictions really are just. The Conviction Integrity Unit is staffed by two assistant district attorney, one investigator and one legal assistant.  This special division is the first of its kind in the United States.

Texas has now authorized a new “change in science cases” writ of habeas corpus post-conviction cases found in S.B. No. 344. This act allows for a challenge of a conviction under the following circumstances:

  1. if the scientific evidence was not available to be offered by a convicted person at the convicted person’s trial; or
  2. if the scientific evidence discredits scientific evidence relied on by the state at trial.

Almost every other state does not provide for people who are convicted to challenge when there has been a recognized change in the science underlying the conviction. Texas should be commended for this. It is the shame of our modern time that other states don’t follow suit. That is outrageous.

Imagine if a conviction entirely relied on witch dunking, just like the Salem Witch trials. We all know that witch dunking is not scientific. Yet, it was used as evidence to convict and condemn people to death. Today, if there was a conviction based upon witch dunking, then that would not be just. We, as a society, should not allow such a conviction to stand. Yet, in almost every state such a conviction would stand for eternity. There are now debunked forensic evidence disciplines such as lead bullet analysis, microscopic hair analysis, and bite mark analysis. Now it seems that old school arson cases and Shaken Baby Syndrome (with no impact) as well as several pattern-based disciplines are on the ropes too.

As a society we need to push for every jurisdiction to establish a Conviction Integrity Unit, and legislation that will allow for challenge in these “change of science cases.” It is time that we evolve.

2 Responses to “Conviction Integrity Unit- A good idea”

  • sliter.chews.pens says:

    Anonymous said…

    If one were so inclined to perform a statistical analysis from the National Registry of Exonerations, of the 1242 exonerations in the United States, 22% involved “false or misleading forensics evidence” (F/MFE). In Texas, this number jumps to 28.6%. However, the F/MFE number for the State of Texas would actually be higher if Dallas County is removed from the analysis because the statistics for F/MFE is unusually, if not suspiciously, low — 12% in Dallas County. Of the exonerations under Craig Watkins’ leadership, the F/MFE drops even further to 7%.

    Conversely, the percentage of exonerations whereby “mistaken witness identification” (MWID) was involved is 38.2% for the nation. In Texas, the MWID is 47.4%. In Dallas County alone, this number is 71%. Of the exonerations under Craig Watkins leadership, 75% are due to MWID.

    Why the skewed statistics for Dallas County vs. the Nation? Were the police agencies that poor at performing correct police line-ups in Dallas County? Is the forensics that good as to never make a mistake? Or could it be argued that Dallas County (and Watkins’ Conviction Integrity Unit) only goes after the “low hanging fruit” for post-conviction investigations?

    Regarding the exonerated’s civil remedies, eye witnesses who mistakenly identify the wrong person (“oops!”) can’t be sued. However, crime labs and their employees can (as State actors).

    Also, a mistaken eye witness only affects a single criminal proceeding. Conversely, if a crime lab or M.E. is found to have made a mistake, hundreds if not thousands of adjudicated cases can be challenged (depending on the number of cases the forensic analyst or M.E. handled for the County — e.g. Fred Zain, Jonathan Salvador, Annie Dookin). There’s a huge financial and time-consuming burden for the Counties to perform root-cause analysis of the mistakes/problems and subsequent “duty to correct” actions. Not to mention, the embarrassment to the crime lab’s or MEO’s integrity inside (or outside) the court room. (Prosecutor’s can’t get the easy plea bargains if their expert witnesses have been known to get the science wrong.) Thus, there’s much less incentive for a prosecutor to investigate claims of wrongful convictions based on flawed forensics.

    While Watkins may have created something noble with his Conviction Integrity Unit in Dallas County, statistically the numbers suggest that he doesn’t (or hasn’t) practice what he preaches.

  • Excellent points. My point was not to endorse the man or the office, but rather the concept of dedicating staff to investigate convictions. If I was not clear, let me be so now. Thank you for your comment.

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