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.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

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The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Artwork by Imre Kinszki © Imre Kinszki Estate
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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Photograph (detail) by Balazs Gardi
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"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
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