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:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2019

The Story of Storytelling

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Myth of White Genocide

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
No Joe!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the heart of the US Capitol there’s a small men’s room with an uplifting Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt quotation above the door. Making use of the facilities there after lunch in the nearby House dining room about a year ago, I found myself standing next to Trent Lott. Once a mighty power in the building as Senate Republican leader, he had been forced to resign his post following some imprudently affectionate references to his fellow Republican senator, arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. Now he was visiting the Capitol as a lucratively employed lobbyist.

Article
The Myth of White Genocide·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The squatter camp outside Lawley township, in the southwest of Johannesburg, stretches for miles against a bare hillside, without electricity, water, or toilets. I visited on a blustery morning in October with a local journalist named Mophethe Thebe, who spent much of his childhood in the area. As we drove toward the settlement he pointed out land that had been abandoned by white Afrikaner farmers after the end of apartheid in 1994, and had since been taken over by impoverished black settlers who built over the former farms with half-paved roadways and tiny brick houses. You could still see stands of headstones inscribed in Afrikaans, all that remained visible of the former inhabitants.

Article
The Story of Storytelling·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The story begins, as so many do, with a journey. In this case, it’s a seemingly simple one: a young girl, cloaked in red, must carry a basket of food through the woods to her bedridden grandmother. Along the way, she meets a duplicitous wolf who persuades her to dawdle: Notice the robins, he says; Laze in the sun, breathe in the hyacinth and bluebells; Wouldn’t your grandmother like a fresh bouquet? Meanwhile, he hastens to her grandmother’s cottage, where he swallows the old woman whole, slips into her bed, and waits for his final course.

Article
Run Me to Earth·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They were released.

For the first time in seven years, they stood outside in the courtyard of the reeducation center. They looked across at the gate. They remembered none of this. The flagpole and the towers. The cameras. Prany counted the sentries in the towers. He heard the rattle of keys as the guard behind him, wearing a green uniform, undid his handcuffs. Then the guard undid Vang’s. They rubbed their free wrists. Vang made fists with his hands.

Prany dug the soles of his new shoes into the dirt. He watched Vang’s hands and then turned to see the building they had exited. It resembled a schoolhouse or a gymnasium. The flag flapped in the wind. The sun on him. The immense sky. His neck was stiff. He knew that if they were forced to run right now his legs might buckle. Not because he was weak, but because in this moment, in the new environment, out in the open, his entire body felt uncertain.

Article
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ten years ago, a week after his sixtieth birthday, and six months after his first appointment with an oncologist, my father died. That afternoon, I went to my parents’ bedroom to clear up the remains of the lunch my mother had brought him not long before he collapsed. A copy of Yiyun Li’s novel The Vagrants, which he’d asked me for after I reviewed it in a newspaper, was open on his bedside table. He had gotten about halfway through it. The Vagrants isn’t what you’d call a consoling book—it centers on a young woman’s unjust execution in a provincial Chinese town in 1979—and I had mixed feelings about it being the last thing he’d read. Perhaps an adolescent part of me had been happy to let him have it out of a need to see him as a more fearless reader than he might have wanted to be just then. Still, my father had read Proust and Robert Musil while working as a real estate agent. There was comfort, of a sort, for me, and maybe him, in his refusal of comfort reading.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Classes at a Catholic school in Durham, North Carolina, were canceled in anticipation of protests against a lesbian alumna, who had been invited to speak at a Black History Month event.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today