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Racial Justice Act — A new tool in Dallas County District Attorney’s arsenal to get racial justice in courts

LatinaLista — Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins gained national notoriety after he was first elected in 2006. His rise in national prominence wasn’t because he was Texas’ first African American-elected district attorney but because he and his office aggressively pursued the exoneration of wrongly convicted Dallas County defendants through DNA testing.

In 2009 Investigation Discovery launched “Dallas DNA,” a weekly show featuring Watkins and his team of ADAs working in the Conviction Integrity Unit.

In the weeks before he assumed office, Watkins was hearing through the court grapevine of one exoneration after another happening in Dallas courts. The rate of exonerations were so noticeably high that citizens questioned the credibility of the local justice system, defense lawyers doubted their clients could get fair trials and state lawmakers referred to it as an “international embarrassment.”

Since 2001, 33 people have been exonerated in Dallas County of their crimes — 28 have been black.

While Watkins still works at making sure that Dallas courts only prosecute the guilty — based on actions and not skin color, he knows that more needs to be done and is proposing to advocate for a new state law allowing criminals, in death penalty cases, to appeal their conviction or sentence by introducing evidence, either in their specific case or through general statistics, to argue that their prosecutions or sentences were influenced by race.

The new law would be called the Racial Justice Act. While it’s not the first of its kind in the nation — North Carolina and Kentucky have similar laws — it would be a first for Texas.

“The issue that we’re bringing to light is to make sure that everything is fair, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, and you’re treated just like anyone else,” Watkins said. “And if you deserve a death sentence, then you will get it. If you didn’t, then you shouldn’t be on death row.”

Watkins hopes to see a bill filed in the next few months.

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