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Dallas targets wrongful convictions, and revolution starts to spread

The Conviction Integrity Unit formed in Dallas to correct wrongful convictions has become a national model that is slowly changing prosecutors' willingness to reopen the books nationwide.

By , Staff writer

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    District Attorney Craig Watkins (r.) greeted Richard Miles at state district court in Dallas in February 2012. Mr. Miles was exonerated of a murder he did not commit.
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It wasn’t until 2006, more than 10 years after he had been sent to prison, that things started going right for Richard Miles.

At 3:15 a.m. on May 16, 1994, Mr. Miles had been at the wrong place at the wrong time – a liquor store six miles from the South Dallas Texaco gas station where two men had been shot, one fatally. Miles, age 19, had left home the year before, tired of life as a preacher’s kid. “I felt like I’d been deprived of the whole world,” he says. So he had gone out to see that world.

First, he saw a police helicopter’s spotlight float over the street and settle on him. Then he saw the inside of a police car.

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He’d just been using the liquor store’s pay phone to ask a friend who lived around the corner to let him in, he told police. But at his 1995 trial, it all went wrong.

A witness pointed out Miles as the gunman. A ballistics expert said Miles’s hands had tested positive for gunshot residue. Prosecutors pointed out that Miles had done time for drug possession and could be mixed up in the kind of bad business that ends with smoking guns in parking lots at odd hours. Police said they had no other suspects.

Miles was sentenced to 40 years in prison for murder and 20 years for attempted murder.

Today, Miles is free, exonerated of the crimes he did not commit by a Dallas district attorney who decided it was his job to find, and fix, the wrongful convictions his predecessors had won. The Conviction Integrity (CI) Unit that Craig Watkins began in 2006 has become a national model and has since spread to a handful of other counties around the United States.

Some of these units are window dressing created mostly for public relations, critics say. But the Dallas CI Unit has had a profound impact in the city and has come at a time when concerns about wrongful convictions are rippling through the American justice system.

Indeed, as exonerations nationwide force prosecutors to reconsider their role in public safety, Mr. Watkins has cast himself as a leading reformer, taking on the insular culture within district attorneys’ offices and challenging the credo that the most effective district attorney is the one who wins the most convictions.

“One overriding truth is that the prosecutor is by far the most important and powerful actor in the criminal justice system,” says Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.

In that way, the Dallas CI Unit is about much more than just the innocence of Miles and the 32 others it has freed, some say. “In 10 years we’ll look back and say we began a process in Texas that fundamentally changed attitudes about the whole meaning of justice in this country,” says Jeff Blackburn, founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, one of a patchwork of innocence projects across the country.

Miles’s big break

For Miles, things began to change the moment his letter landed on the desk of a volunteer at Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit group that works to free the wrongfully convicted. The organization gets 1,000 letters a year from inmates asking for help. Most get polite refusals.

But Miles’s letter was different. Too much of the case looked wrong. Miles is light-skinned, 5-foot-9, and 190 pounds, but witnesses said the shooter was dark-skinned and 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-4. When a caseworker got a copy of the Dallas Police Department’s file on Miles, it included a report of a call from a woman who said her ex-boyfriend – a 6-foot-6, dark-skinned drug dealer – was the killer. Yet the report hadn’t been mentioned at trial – although it had been written three months before the trial began.

In May 2009, Jim McCloskey, founder of Centurion Ministries, requested a meeting with a prosecutor in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. The expectation was that the department would stall or argue or refuse point blank.

But he had reached the Dallas CI Unit. Not only did a prosecutor agree to see Mr. McCloskey, she told him she agreed Miles could be innocent. “That kind of cooperation was almost unheard of,” adds McCloskey.

Between 1989 and 2013, some 1,304 people were exonerated nationwide, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The group says that number only hints at the true figure.

But it is a number many district attorneys’ offices still see as an indictment of their efforts. The pressures on prosecutors to both secure convictions and then fight to maintain them are considerable. District attorneys, who are elected, often see their success measured by their conviction rate. In high-crime cities like Dallas, district attorneys can feel that their best bet for wooing the public is to put people behind bars and keep them there.

Moreover, district attorneys who start rifling through their own books, pointing out where mistakes could have been made, risk ruffling fellow prosecutors who say the office should protect its own. In the early 2000s, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office was no different, says Heath Harris, who joined in 1995. 

“You would get big accolades for big sentences, and everyone wants to be promoted,” says Mr. Harris, who is now the top assistant district attorney in the Dallas office.

The office is on the top floor of a bland, putty-colored municipal complex separated from downtown by a freeway and some baked-looking parking lots that want for trees but might settle for some shrubs. The building has 10 almost identical floors – industrial off-whites, heel-clicking floors – as if the building were mimicking the legal labyrinth that some of its handcuffed visitors will end up navigating.

When he was elected in 2006, Watkins sought to change that office fundamentally. A former public defender who had never prosecuted a case – and who had lost his first district attorney election in 2002 – Watkins was Dallas’s first African-American district attorney.

That would not be his last “first.” Within a year, Watkins started his first-of-its-kind CI Unit, staffed with two prosecutors, an investigator, and an assistant. Their jobs were to do nothing but correct wrongful convictions.

“This is the natural function of a prosecutor’s office,” says Watkins.

Many begged to differ.

“There was an unspoken desire for us to fail,” says Mike Ware, the unit’s first head and now a private defense lawyer in Fort Worth, Texas. “What we were doing was contrary to conventional thinking, and we knew it was going to make traditional allies upset with us.”

Watkins’s revolution

Seven of 234 assistant district attorneys quit. Some of them might just not have liked Watkins, a tall man with a reputation for temper tantrums and diva arrogance. But Watkins says those prosecutors just didn’t like the new way of doing things.

He didn’t mind, he says. Watkins fired a few prosecutors, too, including the prosecutor on Miles’s case, Tom D’Amore. It gave him a chance to bring in new people.

Watkins also introduced several reforms to change the convictions-at-all-costs culture. One change included playing down the adversarial relationship between the defense and the prosecution, says Watkins.

“Things have changed dramatically,” says Lynn Pride Richardson, head of the Dallas Public Defender’s Office, during an elevator ride down from Watkins’s office. “Since Watkins, our relationship has gotten a lot better.”

Watkins’s most visible effort, though, was to get innocent people out. The office began an internal audit of more than 400 cases in which an inmate’s request for a DNA evidence test had been turned down. Prior prosecutors had been “fighting those requests tooth and nail,” says Harris.

At least three of those initial cases resulted in convictions being set aside, says Mr. Ware. It also turned out to be just the beginning.

To date, the office has freed 33 innocent people, according to office data. Critics note that Watkins’s office has not exonerated anyone whom his own office has prosecuted, leading critics to suggest that he is more interested in righting predecessors’ wrongs than in exposing his own. But the office is still going strong. As of March, it was investigating 30 cases and had a backlog of 200 cases that have come from internal reviews, local innocence projects, and defense lawyers.

“There was this bias that once the judge closes the book, the book should stay closed,” says Mr. Blackburn of the Innocence Project of Texas, who is also a private defense lawyer.

When the Dallas CI Unit began to reopen Miles’s book, it found a story that spoke to the myriad ways that the rush to convict can warp the justice system.
In January 2010, the unit reinterviewed the witness who had pointed out Miles in court. The witness confessed in an affidavit that just before testifying he told the prosecutor, Mr. D’Amore, that he “did not recognize Miles.”

But D’Amore told him to “just point out the man sitting at the table with the defense lawyer,” according to the affidavit.

Then, in another blow, the ballistics expert told the Dallas CI Unit in July 2010 that she would call the test for gunpowder residue negative if she could do it over again. The residue could have come from a cigarette, and Miles had been smoking that night.

One prosecutor’s office had sent Miles to prison. Now, the same office was getting him out. “Richard Miles would not be free,” says McCloskey, “were it not for the Dallas district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit.”

An idea spreads

Gradually, some district attorneys across the country noticed what was happening in Texas and knew that, before Watkins arrived, Dallas had been just like any other county. “Nothing was going on in Texas that wasn’t going on anywhere else in the country,” says Gary Udashen, a private defense lawyer in Dallas and president of the Innocence Project of Texas. “Every county should do what Dallas has done.”

More counties are trying. At least 11 CI Units are housed in some of the biggest district attorneys’ offices across the US, including the Brooklyn borough of New York City and Michigan’s Wayne County (Detroit). In April, district attorneys’ offices in Philadelphia and Ohio’s Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) founded units.
CI Units’ effects are felt even in district attorneys’ offices that don’t have them, says Mr. Gross of the National Registry of Exonerations.

“The publicity the units receive has helped generate an atmosphere in which the issue of exonerations is more important to prosecutors,” he says. “It’s something you get political points for.”

For example, this week, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced that his CI Unit would examine 90 mostly homicide cases from the 1980s and 1990s.

Last year, 38 percent of the 87 exonerations in the US – a record number – were achieved either at the behest or with the cooperation of law enforcement, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Still, it’s difficult to gauge the motives behind prosecutors’ interest in overturning wrongful convictions. It’s possible that some prosecutors become aware that an innocence project’s work has made an exoneration imminent and seek to quell a possible public firestorm, says Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School.

“Most of these CI Units remind me of [George] Orwell’s Ministry of Truth” in “1984,” he says. They’re “window dressing.”

It’s also hard to judge the worthiness of CI Units. No CI Unit has a success rate equal to that of the Dallas unit, and some are beleaguered by questions about how committed prosecutors are to the process.

For instance, the CI Unit in Manhattan has reviewed 140 cases and overturned three convictions, according to The Crime Report, a criminal justice news website. The unit was also criticized when, after an internal 18-month investigation, it decided not to overturn the murder conviction of Jon-Adrian Velazquez despite media reports casting doubts on the verdict.

In other instances, the evidence to overturn convictions is harder to come by. When Texas’s Harris County founded a CI Unit, it realized that most of its post-conviction DNA evidence had been destroyed. In contrast, when Watkins was elected, his office was sitting on mountains of untested DNA evidence, in part thanks to his predecessors’ failures to test it, and in part thanks to the local crime lab, which had stored all biological evidence post-conviction.

Changing the way we look at justice

DNA evidence played no role in Miles’s case, which ended when he was exonerated on Feb. 15, 2012 – two years after his release from prison. D’Amore, who prosecuted Miles’s case, says he never knew about the police report filed before the trial. He says the police did not tell the district attorney’s office anything new had come in. He also denies the allegations of coaching the witness.

“I didn’t do it,” says D’Amore, now a private defense attorney in Dallas. “It’s a horrible thing when someone is convicted of a crime they didn’t do, but I presented to the jury the information I had, and nothing more, nothing less.”

Miles filed a formal grievance against D’Amore with the State Bar of Texas in 2012; it was dismissed in April. The witness who said that D’Amore encouraged him to lie told the Monitor he did not remember if D’Amore had done so, or if someone else had done so, and he declined to say what he told the state bar.

Miles did not have high hopes. During the past four decades, prosecutors nationwide have been disciplined for misconduct in less than 2 percent of the 3,625 cases in which it happened, according to the Center for Prosecutor Integrity.

Miles says nothing can give him back the lost years. But his experience can have an impact.

“All I can do now is change the way we look at the criminal justice system,” he says. “We’ll never change our justice system if the people in it right now aren’t held accountable.”

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