Ethics Hero: Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins

Craig Watkins, a D.A. who understands his ethical priorities.

Craig Watkins, a D.A. who understands his ethical priorities.

In Law School, I had the honor of being instructed in the superb Georgetown Law Center Criminal Justice Clinic, by far the single best course of any kind I participated in at any level of my formal education. Our mentor in prosecutor ethics was Seymour Glanzer, the man who, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, cut the deal with Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean that cracked open the Watergate scandal.

Sy had one mantra he repeated to the clinic students often, trying the beat it into our heads forever: the prosecutor must be the center of justice and ethics for the criminal system. Defense attorneys have to defend the accused whether they are guilty or not, but prosecutors are charged with achieving justice, not convictions. “If you don’t have sufficient legal and reliable evidence to convict a defendant of a crime, or have any doubts about that client’s guilt, drop the case,” he told us.

His principles do not hold sway among many, perhaps even most prosecutors, to the shame of the criminal justice system. Too many see their duty as convicting as many accused as possible, putting the law-abiding public at ease by closing cases and filling prisons. Over-zealousness, sometimes to the extremes of withholding exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys while placing questionable eye-witnesses and unreliable experts on the stand under oath, is rampant in district attorney offices across the country.

The worst of the worst may have been Dallas. Vanessa Potkin, chief counsel of The Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School, argues that “no other county in the country beats Dallas. It’s a county that beats out most states in the country.”

It’s an indication of a system that needs reform, she says, with  “staggering numbers of the innocent put in prison.” That is why the recent steps taken by new Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins are so important, and so necessary. Continue reading

A Titanic Fraud Sinks At Last

loraine titanic

Frauds, fakes, hoaxers, swindlers, con artists and scamsters occupy a dark corner of humanity’s family tree. They steal from the innocent, undermine and discourage legitimate charity, make well-intentioned public policy suspect and inefficient, distort history and human knowledge, and cause the the public to be more callous and cynical. These venal liars not only are unethical, but they make ethics themselves appear naive and foolish. This week, a scam of long-standing that began with a mysterious woman who claimed to be a grown infant believed to have died on the Titanic was finally, through DNA evidence and the obsessive work of Titanic history buffs, proven to be what it was…a lie. Continue reading

I Would Have Fired Sympathetic, Well-Meaning, Grandmotherly Sharon Snyder, Too: The Perils Of Consequentialism

Hear me out.

Why do I suspect that if this had been the clerk in question, we wouldn't be hearing about this story?

Why do I suspect that if this had been the clerk in question, we wouldn’t be hearing about this story?

The news media is indignant over the firing of Sharon Snyder, 70, a court worker who provided a copy of a successful motion for seeking post-conviction DNA testing that gained Robert Nelson a reversal of his wrongful 1984 rape conviction. He had been sentenced to more than 50 years in prison, and the belated DNA testing showed that he was innocent. Nevertheless, court officials in Jackson County, Missouri ruled that Nelson’s “angel” had improperly provided advice about a case, among other violations of court rules.

Snyder  was fired nine months before she was scheduled to retire, and there is little question that without her efforts, Nelson would still be in prison. In August 2009, Nelson filed a motion seeking DNA testing that had not been available at his trial 25 years earlier, but Jackson County Circuit Judge David Byrn denied the request. Two years later, Nelson asked the judge to reconsider, but again Byrn rejected the motion because Nelson’s self-drafted document was insufficient under the statute Nelson had cited.  After the second motion was rejected, Snyder contacted Nelson’s sister and gave her a copy of a successful motion, drafted by a lawyer, that resulted in the same judge granting another DNA testing request.  Nelson then used it as a template for a motion he filed Feb. 22, 2012, again seeking DNA testing.  Byrn sustained the motion, found Nelson to be indigent and appointed Laura O’Sullivan, legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project, to represent him.  Last month, the Kansas City Police Department’s crime lab concluded that DNA tests proved that Nelson was not the rapist in the crime he had been convicted of committing. He was freed on June 12, 2013

This is all good, and an example of justice finally, if belatedly, prevailing.

Snyder’s role, however, got her suspended without pay, and then fired on June 27. Continue reading