Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dallas DA Craig Watkins

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

Local civic leaders including (from left) State Senator Royce West, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings attended the installation of Ronald E. Jones, mayor of Garland, as the 13th pastor of New Hope Baptist Church last month. 

Potential challenge suggests Dallas County DA Craig Watkins could be vulnerable

Published: 04 February 2013 11:03 PM

The announcement that a well-respected former judge is considering challenging Craig Watkins in next year’s Democratic primary is raising questions about whether the district attorney, who has built a national profile, has become vulnerable at home in Dallas County.

Former state District Judge John Creuzot said recently he was studying a run against Watkins, and last week, he criticized his potential rival’s incorrect announcement that an arrest had been made in the killing of Kaufman County prosecutor Mark Hasse. Watkins later apologized for the error, blaming a faulty source.

But analysts say it will take a near-perfect campaign — and a lot of luck — for Creuzot to wrestle the district attorney’s office away from Watkins, even as Watkins’ standing with some Democrats starts to waver.

Watkins is still considered a hero by black and progressive voters in Dallas, mainly because of his work to exonerate those convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. Watkins, elected in 2006, is also the first black district attorney ever elected in Texas.

“To most people out there, he’s doing fine,” said Dallas political consultant Lorlee Bartos, a Democrat. “Things seemed to have calmed down for him, but you never know what can happen.”

Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College who has worked as a political consultant, says a Watkins-Creuzot showdown would be a riveting campaign.
Creuzot is “incredibly well-respected and did a fine job as a judge, but he’s also been a Republican,” Sorrell said. “How he answers that question will dictate what kind of opponent he will be.”

Creuzot said he’s in the early stages of considering whether to run for district attorney or develop a private law practice.

And Watkins, who has already declared he’ll run for a third term in 2014, says he doesn’t believe anyone can beat him in a Democratic primary or general election.

Democratic Party operatives and elected officials have been silent about the potential showdown, avoiding public comments until Creuzot makes his intentions clear.

Sen. Royce West, for instance, says he’s focused on the legislative session in Austin and has not talked to Watkins or Creuzot about 2014. West, a Dallas Democrat, is influential in county politics.

And unlike in 2009, when top local Democrats quickly mobilized to run Clay Jenkins against County Judge Jim Foster in the 2010 primary, no Democratic leader has publicly weighed in on the potential clash between Watkins and Creuzot.

But Watkins has clashed with several Democrats during his time as district attorney, and some potential 2014 judicial candidates worry that he’ll be a drag on the countywide ticket.

But others say that Watkins is a strong asset and that a contested primary would only hurt the party brand. Judges generally don’t make public statements about politics in nonelection years.

Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Wade Emmert said the local GOP has a candidate or two ready to challenge Watkins, though he declined to give their names.

In 2010, Watkins won a narrow victory over Republican Danny Clancy. Despite his national acclaim, he took only slightly more than 50 percent of the vote, the lowest total of any Democrat on the countywide ballot.

Still, it will be difficult for a Republican to beat a Democrat in a countywide race here. That hasn’t happened since 2004.

Any serious challenge to Watkins has to come from another Democrat, someone who could carry a credible argument about dumping a historic incumbent to the Democratic base voters.

Creuzot, a pioneer of prison diversion programs, is seen as someone who can raise money and talk from experience about efforts to ease unnecessary incarcerations and close the revolving door between the streets and prison.

In theory, Creuzot would put to the test whether Watkins’ “smart on crime” efforts have been successful, or whether minorities are still being prosecuted and sent to jail at alarming rates.

Sorrell said Creuzot could not win a contest solely based on his own ideas. He’ll have to hit the incumbent hard with criticism of his tenure.

“He has to go at him,” Sorrell said. “It could be very fascinating.”

Watkins has only $10,000 in his campaign account, according to his latest disclosure reports. Though he can surely raise more money from reliable Democratic donors, he doesn’t have the resources to scare off a potential rival.

Then there are the headlines that have dogged Watkins through the years.

Accusations that he was too slow to investigate the questionable activities of former Dallas County Constables Jaime Cortes and Derick Evans seemed to chase away some independent voters, but did nothing to hurt Watkins with Democrats.

Since then, he’s been criticized for hiring Teresa Guerra Snelson to lead his office’s civil division. The hiring came after Snelson paid Watkins’ wife, political consultant Tanya Watkins, more than $88,000 for an unsuccessful campaign for judge.

While ethics experts questioned the arrangement, it wasn’t a major public concern for his Democratic Party base.

Robert Ashley, a southern Dallas political analyst and radio talk show host, said Creuzot could become a credible critic, but that Watkins was still one of the most influential politicians in the area.

“To this point the criticism of Watkins has been viewed by many as sour grapes,” Ashley said. “But Judge Creuzot does not have any credibility gaps. He can become a valid, formidable candidate.”

Former Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Neerman pursued Watkins in 2010 but couldn’t beat him. Neerman said Creuzot would bring a different dynamic than the GOP could offer.

“His primary opponent may be able to attack him in ways that Danny and Republicans couldn’t,” Neerman said. “But if you’re trying to get to hit the king, you better not miss.”
Follow Gromer Jeffers Jr. on Twitter at @gromerjeffers.

Dallas DA Craig Watkins to push for law allowing appeals based on racial factors

Published: 21 January 2013 11:13 PM

“We don’t make a determination on what we’re going to do based upon what other DAs are doing in the state. We’ve never done that. We’re just going to keep pushing the envelope forward to make justice work for the state of Texas, and Texas has an opportunity to lead the country when it comes to what it means to be a prosecutor and what justice is.”  - Dallas DA Craig Watkins

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said he plans to advocate for a state law that would allow criminals to appeal their conviction or sentence on the grounds that race was a factor.

The Racial Justice Act would be based in part on similar laws passed in recent years in North Carolina and Kentucky and would apply, at least initially, only in death penalty cases, Watkins said in an interview Monday. Defendants would be allowed to present evidence from their case or through general statistics to show that race was a significant factor in their prosecution or sentence.

“Throughout history, race has unfortunately played a part, an ugly part, in our criminal justice system,” Watkins said. “This is an opportunity for us to address not only the past, and those individuals who are still being affected by the disparities in treatment, but also in looking forward to make sure that we don’t have those same disparities in our criminal justice system.”

Watkins acknowledged a difficult fight for any such bill in the heavily conservative Texas Legislature. But he said he sees a benefit in floating the proposal now nonetheless because “even if it’s not passed, at least we’ve started the conversation,” he said.

Watkins said he plans to discuss the idea with lawmakers and hopes to have a bill filed in the next few months.

At least one prominent advocate for criminal justice reforms, Innocence Project of Texas chief counsel Jeff Blackburn, said he was skeptical.

“I think the chances of getting something like that done are between slim and none,” Blackburn said. He added, “I think that on a practical level, this kind of Legislature, you’ve got to be tightly focused.”

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, a prominent criminal justice advocate, said he would consider a bill.

“I am going to talk with some other lawmakers to see if we can get bipartisan support for this initiative,” Ellis said through a spokesman.

Watkins, who is midway through his second term, is the first black elected district attorney in the state. The work of his administration to exonerate wrongly convicted

Dallas County defendants, largely through DNA testing, has earned him national acclaim.
According to the district attorney’s office, 28 of the 33 people who have been exonerated of crimes since 2001 are black.

Sentencing disparity

Academic studies have argued that a racial disparity in sentencing exists. One 2008 study by a University of Denver professor concluded that black defendants in Harris County, which includes Houston, were more likely to get a death sentence than white defendants.
Blacks comprise 40 percent of Texas’ nearly 300 death row inmates, while 11 percent of the state’s population is black. Researchers caution, however, that such raw numbers don’t take into account a number of factors.

Watkins said the law would increase the credibility of Dallas County prosecutors in the eyes of potential jurors. Without that credibility, he said, “it’s less likely that we’ll be in position to convict the guilty and get the adequate punishment.”

Kentucky’s law, passed in 1998, allows a defendant facing the death penalty to seek a hearing under the act before trial. Only a tiny number of defendants have successfully taken the death penalty off the table, said Allison Connelly, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law who has studied the act.

The North Carolina Legislature passed a bill in 2009 that allowed defendants to use statistics and other evidence. But after Republicans won control of the Legislature the next year, lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to repeal the bill. The Legislature last year barred many statistics from being used, limiting defendants only to direct evidence that applied to their cases.

Watkins has long been conflicted about the death penalty, which he opposed for much of his life. He revealed last year that his great-grandfather was executed by the state and around the same time that he said state legislators ought to review death penalty procedures to ensure the punishment is fairly administered.

On Monday, he said his views on capital punishment are “somewhat irrelevant.”
“I’m just of the opinion that if we’re going to seek it that it has to be fairly administrated,” he said. “No matter where you come from, what you look like, it has to be fairly administrated.”

Veteran defense attorney Brad Lollar has represented defendants in 13 death penalty cases. He said he applauds the effort to address the apparent disparity in the way capital punishment is handed down.

“That’s been a problem and that’s been an issue that we’ve seen come up time and again here in Dallas during the time that I’ve been practicing,” said Lollar, also a former chief public defender for the county.

Lollar said it’s important “to keep the issue in the forefront of people’s minds, perhaps to when they’re considering the death penalty and the application of it. So, yeah, I’m all for it.”

Officials with the Texas District & County Attorneys Association, the state prosecutors group, said they weren’t aware how prosecutors felt yet about a potential act. But Watkins said he wasn’t concerned if the idea would be unpopular with other prosecutors.

“We don’t make a determination on what we’re going to do based upon what other DAs are doing in the state. We’ve never done that,” Watkins said. “We’re just going to keep pushing the envelope forward to make justice work for the state of Texas, and Texas has an opportunity to lead the country when it comes to what it means to be a prosecutor and what justice is.”

Staff writer Scott Goldstein,The Associated Press

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