No Comment — November 15, 2008, 11:25 am

In Praise of a Prosecutor

What makes a bad prosecutor? It’s simple: Does the prosecutor’s longing for the public limelight, his aspirations for public office, come to overwhelm his dedication to justice, to simply doing the right thing? It’s said that a famous chief prosecutor from Dallas, Henry Wade, summed up the thinking that goes into a really bad prosecutor like this: “any prosecutor could convict a guilty man, but… it takes a real pro to convict an innocent man.”

Each year Bob Bennett, a former federal prosecutor who now heads his own litigation firm in Houston, Texas, publishes an invaluable list of the “ten worst prosecutors in the United States.” In the era of Bush, the competition to make the list has grown fierce. Last year, Bennett’s list was a sort of Bush-justice rogues gallery, starting with the world’s worst prosecutor, the disgraced (but still not indicted) former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. It’s worth a read.

The Bush Administration has been a breeding grounds for this kind of abuse, stoking and rewarding it. But it’s worth remembering that there are honorable, dedicated, professional prosecutors at work, even in the Bush team—men like David Iglesias and David McKay, and women like Carol Lam. (They were all fired, of course.) And today’s Wall Street Journal brings an account of another prosecutor worthy of the name: Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. And if there’s one trait that Watkins brings to the job, it’s a dedication to justice and a determination to right the injustices of the long line of legendarily bad prosecutors who went before him–including Henry Wade.

Craig Watkins may be the only prosecutor in America who is making his name getting people out of prison. As district attorney of Dallas County, Mr. Watkins is using DNA evidence to investigate more than 400 guilty verdicts notched up by his predecessors. His office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, launched last year for this purpose, has so far cleared six men wrongly convicted of rape, murder or robbery. In the past two decades, more than 200 convicts nationwide have been freed thanks in part to DNA testing. The tests involve taking biological material such as blood from the person convicted and comparing it to a sample left at the crime scene…

Mr. Watkins’s approach marks a change for Dallas, criticized for decades as a convict-at-all-costs county. It gained national notoriety in 1988 with the release of The Thin Blue Line, a documentary recounting the case of a man railroaded by prosecutors and wrongly convicted of murdering a police officer. Dallas County has had a string of district attorneys with tough-on-crime reputations stretching back to the legendary Henry Wade. Mr. Wade held the position from 1951 through 1986. He prosecuted Jack Ruby for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald and was the named defendant in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that decriminalized abortion. Mr. Wade was famous for never losing a case he personally prosecuted, and for getting juries to impose the death penalty nearly every time he asked. His staff of assistants was almost as successful, and all told, won convictions in more than 150,000 cases.

Of course, there are a number of prosecutors who are riled up about Watkins. They think he’s giving the criminal justice system a bad name by showing that it misfired. These are precisely the sort of prosecutors whose indifference to justice is causing our system to rot from within.

Watkins is doing God’s work and furnishing an example to the new U.S. attorneys who will shortly be appointed by Barack Obama. They have a Herculean task–restoring public confidence in a Justice Department which has been transformed into a cesspool of unethical conduct and corruption–before them. And they will have to start with a stern look at the ineptitude and misconduct of their predecessors–including cases like the prosecution of Alabama’s Don Siegelman, Mississippi’s Paul Minor and Wes Teel, and Pennsylvania’s Cyril Wecht—that are now a blot on the nation’s reputation for justice.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2015

Come With Us If You Want to Live

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Body Politic

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Problem of Pain Management

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Game On

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love Crimes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Body Politic·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘He wrote all these love poems, but he was a son of a bitch,’ said a reporter from a wire service.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
Love Crimes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If a man rapes a woman, she might be forced to marry him, because in Afghanistan sex before marriage is dishonorable.”
Photographs © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Agence VU
Article
Game On·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had posed a truly existential threat.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Come With Us If You Want to Live·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I was startled that all these negative ideologies could be condensed so easily into a positive worldview.”
Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Acres of hemp grown by “patriotic‚” U.S. farmers in 1942 at the behest of the U.S. government:

36,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

Greenpeace apologized after activists accidentally defaced the site of Peru’s 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines when they unfurled cloth letters reading “time for change” near the ancient sand drawings. “We fully understand,” the group wrote in a statement, “that this looks bad.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today