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:
- if the scientific evidence was not available to be offered by a convicted person at the convicted person’s trial; or
- 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.