Craig Watkins, ‘rock star’ DA at a crossroads

Craig WatkinsCraig Watkins, the first black district attorney in the history of Texas, is having a midterm crisis.

At 41, he has his own cable TV series. His novel determination to free the wrongly convicted landed him on “60 Minutes.” He is a national champion of turning the penal system on its head and a “rock star” to many constituents.

But this is Texas, and certain law-and-order traditions still stand. More inmates are executed here than anywhere else. Legislators are allowed to carry guns onto the floor of the statehouse. And prosecutors are better known for slamming cell doors than opening them.

As his re-election campaign rattles to life this fall, Watkins finds the national halo he’s been standing under has become more of a local floodlight magnifying frailties and foibles. His trailblazing has become irksome to older politicians, who consider it arrogant to break the rules before playing by them.

Among them is John Wiley Price, the only black Dallas County commissioner, who says Watkins has “gotten to be a show horse instead of a work horse.”

“I had a lot of high hopes for Craig,” the outspoken fellow Democrat adds. “It appears he’s gotten public policy confused with personality politics.”

And a Republican has stepped forward for the 2010 election, when it was expected the party wouldn’t field anyone because Watkins was considered unbeatable.

Like President Barack Obama, a man he idolizes, Watkins is learning a hard lesson: Making impassioned speeches and election history doesn’t carry the day in the daily brawl of politics.

Especially when it comes to reforming a giant institution ? whether it be health care or criminal justice.

To spend a day with the maverick prosecutor is to watch a dogged attorney with oddly opposing traits ? he is not afraid to speak his mind, but can be easily wounded. He is smart and savvy, but sometimes surprisingly naive. He speaks of grand reforms to a behemoth criminal justice system, but chronicles slights small and large.

For the rest of his term, Watkins wants to focus on the hard task of rehabilitating, as well as punishing, those in prison.

His opponents accuse him of being soft on crime ? “hug-a-thug” sums it up, Watkins jokes. But his office’s conviction rate is more than 98 percent, higher than the figures of some tough-on-crime predecessors.

In his first trial, district attorney Watkins stood before jurors and said the accused, who’d murdered members of his family, deserved to be executed.

“That was difficult,” he says. “Getting up in that courtroom and saying this man should die.”

He’d long opposed the death penalty. Now he’s not sure. “It’s my job,” he says, “whether I like it or not.”

What brought him national fame was opening the Conviction Integrity Unit, which has reviewed more than 300 convictions where DNA evidence remained in custody.

His unit, working with the Texas Innocence Project, found 15 inmates who’d been wrongly convicted in a county that already had the highest number of exonerations in the nation.

That’s not enough to appease local critics. “They just can’t accept that I’m intelligent enough to do this job without sitting at someone’s knee,” says Watkins, who at 6-foot, 5-inches, doesn’t so much sit in a chair as occupy it like an invading army.

The voice of Stevie Wonder billows from somewhere in his small, cluttered office on the 11th floor of a bland, brown court building.

He is not a showman, he says. He’s a serious-minded prosecutor.

“To me, it’s an insult,” he says. “Why not give me the credit to have the intelligence to think this through?” He stops for a moment.

“And I may be thin-skinned about it, I admit it.”


Watkins doesn’t write speeches, or read from a prepared text. He wings it, much to the annoyance of his unflappable public information officer Jamille Bradfield.

“I wish he’d let me write a speech for him,” she says with a mischievous smile.

He concedes her point, but that doesn’t mean he’ll change anytime soon. Definitely not today.

“Are we taking your van?” he asks absent-mindedly, checking the pockets of his baggy, pinstriped suit before wandering to his wooden desk, where he finds a wad of gum and plops it in his mouth.

His first speech of the day: a Junior Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Bradfield drives. Watkins squeezes in back, his long legs straddling the passenger seat.

All day, he consults his BlackBerry for online comments regarding a rebuttal he wrote to a local paper’s editorial. It blasted him for staying silent in a brewing, convoluted scandal involving allegations of stolen cars, county officials and a local towing company.

“It’s a lot of silliness,” he says, and it’s nobody’s business how, or if, his office is investigating.

Arriving in the parking lot of a glass high-rise, he steps into a blinding sun and temperatures hovering at 95 degrees. He jettisons the gum, but somehow a long string sticks to his jacket.

“What do you want me to talk about?” he asks an event sponsor. Personal development, he’s told.

Bradfield tells him, in a stage whisper, that there’s gum on his backside. Watkins grabs a patch of the offending goo, but a noticeable trail remains as the district attorney of Dallas County lopes into an austere conference room.

About 20 men and women, none of them African-American, pick at boxed lunches. As they eat, the guest speaker is introduced.

“I get to decide if a person’s freedom is taken,” Watkins says somberly. “I get to decide if a person lives or dies.”

He is met by the crinkling of unsuccessful attempts to noiselessly open potato chip bags.

He tells of growing up in an all-black neighborhood, of being given a Bible as a youngster by a white man who said Watkins “had been called to something greater,” of wanting to change things, of daring to dream instead of settling for being average.

His listeners ? all under 39 and all climbing the corporate ladder ? regard him with expressions ranging from distant to polite.

Afterward, Watkins frowns. “I think I should have been a little more prepared for that one,” he says.

“You did fine,” Bradfield tells him, patting his shoulder.

“Really?” he asks.

“Yes,” she replies, giving him a knowing look. “Considering the audience.”

That brief exchange illuminates the fissure in Watkins’ constituency. Dallas County’s traditional power base of conservative, white voters is being eclipsed by a growing liberal population that, according to 2008 Census figures, is nearly 39 percent Hispanic and more than 20 percent black.

The Dallas DA’s office has a hard, and sometimes backward, legacy. Until the 1980s, prosecutors where told to not pick minorities during jury selection. It gained infamy for sending Randall Dale Adams to death row in a case detailed in “The Thin Blue Line,” an award-winning documentary showing how prosecutors railroaded Adams for the murder of a police officer. He was freed in 1989.

Watkins’ most well-known predecessor was Henry Wade, who ruled from 1951 to 1986 on a mandate of convict at all costs, critics say. Wade prosecuted Jack Ruby for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald and was famously sued in Roe v. Wade, the lawsuit that legalized abortion in the United States.

In 2006, when Watkins was elected in a Democratic landslide that also claimed 42 judgeships, he used the back elevator to enter his new office. He didn’t come in the front because he hated the looks on the mostly white faces of the staff he inherited, he says. He saw flickers of racism, he says, and “disgust, fear and ‘Is my career over?'” He fired a handful of top lawyers ? “I couldn’t fire all of them,” he says ruefully ? and brought in a woman and people of color.

Straight out of Texas Wesleyan University law school, Watkins tried to become a prosecutor, but couldn’t get hired. Born and raised in Dallas, he opened a criminal defense and bail-bond office in a house on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

His clients included a lot of drug dealers. “I began to see that I was actually contributing to the problems of the criminal justice system.”

So he decided to try the other side of the courtroom, but lost his first run for DA in 2002.

His wife, Tanya, now runs a consulting business out of his former his law office. His childhood was solidly middle class. His mother runs a senior citizens’ day care next door. His father owns a customized T-shirt business, where Gregory, his younger brother by 12 years, helps out.

The Watkinses have three children, Chad, 11, Cale, 8 and Taryn, the only girl, who at age 3 is called The Contessa because “she rules the house,” Tanya says when Watkins stops by after lunch.

“That’s her main subject, right there,” she says, pointing to her husband of 13 years. He grins and looks sheepish. “Yeah, I love it,” he says.

His tight-knit family stands solidly behind him, he says, which softens the sting of not fitting in with some of his comrades.

“You still see all these DA’s in Texas with their cowboy hats on, and they’ve got their cowboy boots on, and they’re saying, ‘We’re going to lock them all up.’

“That’s not my approach.”

But Watkins has on cowboy boots. Black ones, made of ostrich skin.

“I have to wear these,” he says, so Texans will take him seriously.

Those who don’t, no matter what he puts on his feet, are jealous, Watkins says.

“I’m too successful. I’m on TV too much. We’re setting the agenda for public prosecutors across the country,” he says.

Some colleagues say Watkins’ agenda is the same one they pursue every day of their career.

“There’s almost this media notion that he’s the only one concerned with justice,” said Scott Burns, executive director of the 7,000-member National District Attorneys Association.

“But all prosecutors go to work everyday to do justice, not to convict just to convict,” said Burns, a former Utah district attorney who also served in the national drug czar’s office.

Watkins has explained his brand of justice to lofty groups including the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington and the Harvard Club in New York.

Yet ordinary things can baffle him.

He doesn’t know, for instance, how many bedrooms are in his house. “Seven, eight?” he replies, driving his Mercedes SUV past a three-story estate he bought because it reminded him of South Fork, the palatial Texan home of the 1980s television series “Dallas.”

He acknowledges bad publicity as a consequence of political life, but is perplexed by being its target. He doesn’t understand a media ruckus that erupted late last year when the state suspended his law license. He’d forgotten to pay his Texas Bar Association dues. “Why is that a story?” he asks, clearly irked. “I forgot. I was kind of busy.”


Becoming a district attorney is not a popular goal for African-Americans, says Carmen Lineberger, president of The National Black Prosecutors Association and an assistant U.S. attorney in Florida.

“Prosecutors are looked at as traitors by the community,” says Lineberger. Some say “How can you do that to your own people?

“I always say, ‘I am helping my people.'”

Like Watkins, Lineberger sees rehabilitation as the prison system’s future and drug treatment as the fix for junkies busted on possession charges.

“The urge to use crack cocaine is stronger than the urge to eat,” she says. “Jail’s not going to break it. Treatment will change it.” She pauses. “Sometimes.”

She praises Watkins for pursing justice for those already convicted. “Law and order serves no purpose in having the wrong person in prison, because that means the doer is still out there.”

Defense attorneys are also strong supporters. They laud his “smart justice” approach, including a diversion program allowing first-time, nonviolent drug offenders to avoid jail if they stay clean and hold a job or go to school.

“None of us had any experience with a DA whose job was broader than just prosecuting people,” said lawyer Gary Udashen. He represented Patrick Waller, freed in 2007 after serving 16 years for kidnapping and rape. Genetic testing ordered by the integrity unit proved another man committed the crimes.

“If Craig Watkins had not become DA, Patrick would still be in prison,” Udashen said. “He’s a rock star in some parts of the community.”


At his last appearance of the day, Watkins is the keynote speaker at a graduation ceremony for youths who’d had brushes with the law. They’ve just completed a course in construction work.

About 100 African-Americans ? graduates, parents, children and teachers ? fill a small auditorium.

He doesn’t know exactly what this group does. Naturally, he has no speech.

At the podium, teachers extol the virtues of hard, honest work. “That’s right,” the audience answers. “You tell it. Mmm, hmm.” Seemingly everyone has a comment ? babies cry, children babble without being shushed, cell phones ring.

A local businesswoman introduces the keynote speaker: “Please stand to recognize and help me thank God for Craig Watkins.”

The graduates, in maroon caps and gowns, jump up, clapping and hooting.

The first black district attorney in Texas history tells them, with compassion and steel, to hold their heads high.

“I take pride in everything I do,” he says.

Around the room, mortarboards nod in assent. Tassels bounce.

“Don’t focus on that mistake you made in the past,” he says.

“That’s right,” his listeners murmur. “That’s right.”

“Don’t let that mistake define you,” he admonishes, his voice rising.

“That’s right,” they answer, their voices louder.

“It’s your responsibility to prove them wrong. To prove that you can make a difference. Always reach back and help someone else.”

To a person, the audience is on its feet.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.