A district attorney whose office leads the nation in wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing says prosecutors who intentionally withhold evidence from the defense should face criminal charges or other harsh sanctions.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said he's considering a campaign to mandate disbarment of any prosecutor who doesn't reveal evidence that could help a defendant. The worst offenders might deserve prison time, he said.
"Something should be done," Watkins told The Dallas Morning News in an interview published in Sunday's editions. "If the harm is a great harm, yes, it should be criminalized."
Since 2001, DNA tests have formally exonerated 31 people in Texas, 17 of them in Dallas County, both figures the highest in the U.S.
State has paid compensation in 45 cases
The state has paid compensation in 45 wrongful conviction cases. At least 22 of them involved prosecutors withholding evidence from the defense, including 19 from the infamous drug case in the Panhandle town of Tulia that were based on the work of a discredited undercover investigator. The other three were in Dallas County.
James Curtis Giles, who was wrongly convicted in a 1982 gang rape after the victim incorrectly picked him from a photo lineup and prosecutors withheld the confession of a co-defendant, said harsh sanctions make sense.
"A crime is a crime," Giles said. "We've got to set an example — prison time or barred from practicing law."
There's no law in Texas calling for criminal charges for prosecutors who intentionally withhold evidence. But the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit legal clinic that worked to free many of the Dallas County exonerees, plans to push for it in the session that starts in January.
Michelle Moore, a board member of the Innocence Project and a Dallas County public defender, speculated chances of legislative success were "slim to none." State prosecutors are a powerful lobby in Austin.
Criminalization has some lawmaker support
However, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, chief author of the Texas law that created the compensation system for wrongfully convicted inmates, said he would support criminalization.
"What better way to get to the truth?" said Ellis, who plans to chair a summit on wrongful convictions Thursday in Austin. "Why wouldn't we have a criminal statute to keep prosecutors from lying when they know the truth?"
The State Bar of Texas oversees the conduct of lawyers, but it does not prosecute crimes and, legal experts say, rarely sanctions prosecutors for misconduct.
Without strong action from the state bar, Watkins said he would fire any prosecutor who intentionally withholds evidence. Two prosecutors accused of such violations already have resigned.