In the spirit of similar laws out of North Carolina and Kentucky, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins plans on advocating for a Racial Justice Act in the state of Texas. The law would give convicted criminals a route to appeal their case on the grounds that they were convicted, in part, due to racism.
“Throughout history, race has unfortunately played a part, an ugly part, in our criminal justice system,” Watkins said, according to the Dallas Morning News. “This is an opportunity for us to address not only the past, and those individuals who are still being affected by the disparities in treatment, but also in looking forward to make sure that we don’t have those same disparities in our criminal justice system.”
The Racial Justice Act would work by allowing a defendant to use specific evidence from his or her case or general statistics to prove that race was a deciding factor in the outcome of their case. In North Carolina, the law has served to free a few people since it was enacted.
In Texas, legislation like this is especially warranted—we lead the nation in exonerations and the racial disparities within our prison system are undeniable. According to Watkins’ office 28 of the 33 people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence since 2001 are black.
The likelihood of such a law making it past conservative lawmakers in our state, however, is slim.
One supporter, chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas Jeff Blackburn is not optimistic about Watkins’ efforts being fruitful.
“I think the chance of getting something like that done are between slim and none,” he said.
Even Watkins himself says the odds aren’t in his favor, but sees benefit in “floating” the bill even if it doesn’t pass. “Even if it’s not passed, at least we’ve started the conversation.”
Watkins is the first black elected district attorney in the entire state. His work on DNA exonerations has been nationally recognized and applauded.
It isn’t clear what Watkins’ colleagues think of his bill yet, but Watkins doesn’t seem to care.
“We don’t make a determination on what we’re going to do based upon what other DAs are doing in the state. We’ve never done that. We’re just going to keep pushing the envelope forward to make justice work for the state of Texas, and Texas has an opportunity to lead the country when it comes to what it means to be a prosecutor and what justice is.”
If you are accused of a crime, whether race was a factor or not, you have rights. Whether you are facing years behind prison walls for a serious violent felony or if you are up against your first DUI charge, we may be able to help.