Sunday, May 31, 2009
Many of you may have heard of Craig Watkins, who in 2006 became the first African-American elected district attorney of any county in Texas history when he became the Dallas County District Attorney. Last year, Reason's Radly Balko mused about whether Watkins was America's best prosecutor based upon his creation of the Conviction Integrity Unit.
Established by District Attorney Craig Watkins in July of 2007, the Conviction Integrity Unit oversees the post-conviction review of more than 400 DNA cases in conjunction with the Innocence Project of Texas (IPOT) and in accordance with the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 64 (Motion for Forensic DNA Testing). In addition to the IPOT project, the Conviction Integrity Unit investigates and prosecutes old cases (DNA and non-DNA related) where evidence identifies different or additional perpetrators. Special Field Bureau Chief Mike Ware supervises the Conviction Integrity Unit, the Appellate Division, the Public Integrity Division, the Federal Division and the Mental Health Unit, as well as public information, evidence destruction and expunctions at the District Attorney’s Office. The Conviction Integrity Unit is staffed by one assistant district attorney, one investigator and one legal assistant. This special division is the first of its kind in the United States.
This Unit is a big reason why Dallas County, with 20 DNA exonerations (including the recent exoneration of Jerry Lee Evans), has more DNA exonerations than any other jurisdiction in the nation since 2001. It's also the reason that you can follow the Unit's exploits on the (quite good) reality show Dallas DNA.
But what happens when the wrongfully convicted are released? What efforts does Dallas made to (somewhat) ease the transition from prison cell to a world that is often markedly different from the one the exonree inhabited before his incarceration? The answer is a lot more than it used to.
Texas recently passed a bill which increased lump sum payments to the wrongfully convicted
from $50,000 to $80,000 for every year of confinement and grant[ed] an annuity to provide a lifetime of income. Exonerees will get 120 hours of paid tuition at a career center or public college. Senators removed a provision to provide health insurance coverage for exonerees.
It also provides an additional $25,000 for each year a wrongly convicted person spends on parole or as a registered sex offender. No other state has such a provision, said Barry Scheck, the co-director of The Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center specializing in overturning wrongly convictions.