Using DNA to clear the innocent is right - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Using DNA to clear the innocent is right

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Posted: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 9:53 pm | Updated: 1:30 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Scott Hyder: Let’s be honest: People generally despise lawyers. What was once a respected profession has been tarnished by vindictive prosecutions, sloppy defenses, frivolous lawsuits, and lawyers resorting to legal trickery and fighting that they justify as the necessary evil to ensure “vigorous advocacy” for their clients.

Let’s be honest: People generally despise lawyers. What was once a respected profession has been tarnished by vindictive prosecutions, sloppy defenses, frivolous lawsuits, and lawyers resorting to legal trickery and fighting that they justify as the necessary evil to ensure “vigorous advocacy” for their clients.

So I was pleasantly surprised to read about Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. He previously worked as a defense attorney and his only prosecutorial experience was a brief internship handling misdemeanors in the city prosecutor’s office.

How does a defense lawyer get elected as a Texas district attorney? Watkins ran an unconventional and smart campaign. He reminded voters that it wasn’t in anyone’s best interest for innocent convicts to rot in prison. Watkins campaigned to be “smart on crime” instead of just “tough on crime.”

Once elected, Watkins instituted a highly publicized DNA exoneration program that has already resulted in the release of 19 former convicts. One was Patrick Waller, who served 15 years in prison for robbery and kidnapping. A DNA test proved Waller’s innocence. When the judge told Waller he was a free man, he collapsed in his mother’s arms, sobbing.

Johnnie Lindsey spent 26 years in prison after he was convicted of rape. Seven months ago, Watkins supported Lindsey’s release after DNA evidence proved he did not commit the crime. When Lindsey appeared on ABC’s “The View” three weeks ago, his childhood sweetheart told Whoopi Goldberg that Lindsey refused to get married until he was able to secure a job, something that has been difficult since his release because the governor of Texas has yet to timely sign Lindsey’s pardon.

Why is all of this so amazing? Because Watkins is willing to show his office’s mistakes in order to make sure that the right person goes to jail. In a state like Texas, which is the capital of capital punishment, it makes it even more amazing that Watkins was named the 2008 Texas Man of the Year.

Watkins’ insistence on ensuring fairness and maintaining prosecutorial integrity probably makes him one of the few lawyers who can sleep peacefully at night.

I wonder if Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas sleeps as well as Craig Watkins? To be fair, I can’t imagine most elected prosecutors adopting what many critics refer to as Watkins’ “Hug-a-Thug” programs. And why should they? After all, it goes against the “convict-at-all-costs” approach and opens up the dreaded possibility that mistakes occur via vigorous prosecutions.

But it is startling that Watkins (who prosecutes criminals in a county smaller than Maricopa County) has secured the release of 19 innocent people in just the last two years. So how many innocent people would be released if Thomas had the courage to adopt a similar DNA exoneration program?

Take for example Courtney Bisbee, who is serving 11 years for molesting a 13-year-old boy. After the trial, the victim’s brother stated in an affidavit that their mother told the victim “to lie and stick to the story and you’ll be a rich kid.”

Other affidavits and depositions show witnesses’ admissions that no crime occurred. Shouldn’t this be enough for Thomas’ office to help rectify what is most likely a wrongful conviction?

In 2002, Thomas’ predecessor, Richard Romley, supported Ray Krone’s release after a DNA test showed another person committed the murder. But $4.4 million of Maricopa County taxpayer money was paid to Krone for the 3,769 days he spent on death row. Surely a DNA exoneration program would be cheaper than that!

Arizona was recently awarded a $1.4 million federal grant to help determine if there are people in prison who have been wrongfully convicted. This is a step in the right direction. But should “dollars and cents” and “conviction ego” get in the way of a prosecutor’s basic job responsibility to investigate, when warranted, a person’s wrongful incarceration?

Most attorneys will admit that the battles of the law profession have scarred them over the years, jading their personality to some degree. An attorney like Craig Watkins shows it is possible to overcome those scars. He reminds us how dignified the practice of law can be.

Scott Hyder is a Phoenix business attorney. Visit his Web site at www.scotthyderlaw.com.

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