Craig Watkins, the former Dallas County District Attorney, who rose to prominence for rebuilding trust in the legal system through his groundbreaking initiatives, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 56. While the cause of his death remains undisclosed, Watkins leaves behind a legacy of unwavering commitment to justice, particularly in the realms of prosecuting sex offenders and championing the rights of the wrongfully convicted.
Born and raised in Dallas, Watkins embarked on his legal journey after graduating from Prairie View A&M University and obtaining his law degree from Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. His early career included stints as a public defender and private practitioner, where he gained valuable insights into the intricacies of the justice system.
In 2007, Watkins made history by becoming the first Black man to be elected as the district attorney in Dallas County. His victory was not only a personal achievement but a milestone for the entire state, symbolizing progress and breaking down barriers in the pursuit of equal representation.
Watkins served two terms in office, during which he demonstrated an unyielding dedication to justice, particularly in cases of child abuse. Under his leadership, the Dallas County District Attorney’s office achieved a remarkable 99.4% conviction rate, reflecting his commitment to ensuring that perpetrators faced the consequences of their actions.
One of the cornerstones of Watkins’s tenure was the creation of the Conviction Integrity Unit, the first of its kind in the nation. This innovative unit played a crucial role in reviewing over 300 cases, leading to the exoneration of 25 individuals who had been wrongly convicted. Watkins’s vision and leadership in establishing this unit earned him recognition as one of Governing Magazine’s Public Officials of the Year in 2008.
Despite his achievements, Watkins faced challenges in his career, including a re-election bid in 2015 that he ultimately lost to Republican Susan Hawk. The defeat came amidst an FBI probe into allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, marking a turbulent period for the former district attorney.
In 2017, following Hawk’s resignation and the subsequent appointment of Republican Faith Johnson, Watkins contemplated a return to public office. Ultimately, he decided against it, choosing to focus on his family while continuing to contribute to the legal field through private practice.
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, Watkins’s successor, expressed his sadness at the news of Watkins’s passing. Creuzot acknowledged Watkins’s profound impact on the justice system, highlighting his relentless pursuit of justice in child abuse cases and the groundbreaking Conviction Integrity Unit.
Creuzot remarked, “Craig was perfectly human, and those who knew him are better for it. I am proud to have known him, to have worked with him, and to have been elected to the same office he held. He will be missed.”
Cory Session, vice president of the Innocence Project, praised Watkins for setting the bar in the pursuit of justice. Watkins’s commitment to rectifying wrongful convictions and advocating for the rights of the innocent resonated deeply with organizations like the Innocence Project, emphasizing the profound impact he had on the criminal justice landscape.
Craig Watkins is survived by his wife Tanya and their three children. As the community mourns the loss of a visionary leader, details about a memorial service to honor his life and contributions remain pending. Watkins’s legacy will undoubtedly endure through the lives he touched, the reforms he championed, and the pursuit of justice he passionately pursued throughout his impactful career.