This month, DPIC celebrates Black History Month with weekly profiles of notable Black Americans whose work affected the modern death penalty era. The third in this series is former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who died on December 12, 2023. 

Craig Watkins, a former defense attorney, was elected as Texas’ first Black district attorney and was the creator of the nation’s first Conviction Integrity Unit. He served two terms as Dallas County District Attorney, from 2007-2015.  

While in office, Mr. Watkins abandoned the established practice of routinely opposing defendants’ motions for DNA testing and created a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) to review cases involving allegations of wrongful conviction. Heath Harris, who served as Mr. Watkins’ first assistant DA, said, ”He had a lot of courage in trying to change the criminal justice system. The stuff that he did here set a blueprint for the nation.” The Dallas County CIU has led to the exoneration of 24 people since 2007. Christopher Scott, one of the men exonerated by Mr. Watkins’ DNA testing policy, stated his “heart was broken” by the loss of Mr. Watkins and that Mr. Watkins had “saved [his] life.” In 2007, Craig Watkins won Texas Lawyer’s “Impact Lawyer of the Year 2007” award and Dallas Weekly’s “Man of the Year 2007.” 

Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck told the Wall Street Journal in 2008 that Mr. Watkins’ openness to pursue claims of innocence often helps find the real perpetrator in these cases and create leads in other cold cases. “Many times, you bring these cases to district attorneys and they say, ‘You can’t go see my file. I won’t do anything.’ There’s a knee-jerk reluctance to revisit anything,” said Mr. Scheck. He added that Dallas County’s CIU serves as a model for others. “Mr. Watkins takes the view that if he can correct a wrongful conviction, that’s a good thing.” 

Mr. Watkins’ legacy on the death penalty was complicated. He revealed in 2012 that his own great-grandfather, Richard Johnson, had been executed in 1932. He called on state legislators to review death penalty procedures to ensure the punishment was fairly administered, and he raised concerns about the execution of innocent people, saying, “I think it’s a legitimate question to have, to ask: ‘Have we executed someone that didn’t commit the crime?’” Yet as district attorney, he regularly sought the new death sentences. During his tenure, Dallas County sentenced more people to death than any other Texas county.  

Throughout his career, Mr. Watkins sometimes received criticism for being a “criminal-loving DA.” Mr. Watkins would often respond by stating, “We have a constitutional obligation to seek justice.” Remarking on Mr. Watkins’ death, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price stated, “At the end of the day, the scales of justice were better because of Craig Watkins.”


Jamie Landers, Kelli Smith and Aria Jones, Former Dallas DA Craig Watkins, Creator of Nation’s First Conviction Integrity Unit, Dies at 56, Dallas Morning News, December 13, 2023; Bethany Erickson, Former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins Dead at 56, D Magazine, Jan. 16, 2024; 22nd Anniversary & Volunteer Awards, American Bar, Jan. 17, 2024; Jack Marshall, Ethics Hero: Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, Ethics Alarm, Jan. 12, 2024; Jennifer Forsyth and Leslie Eaton, The Exonerator, The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 17, 2024; Conviction Integrity Division, Dallas County, Feb. 1, 2024; Nomaan Merchant, Texas DA Seeks Death Penalty Review, Associated Press, Feb. 12024