Prosecutors should be careful to convict

Earlier this month, Charles Chatman, a man convicted in Dallas County of rape and sentenced to 99 years in prison, was exonerated and released based on DNA evidence. Chatman served more than 26 years behind bars.

The judge who granted his release took Chatman out for a steak dinner – a small gesture, but a signal of growing interest among some Texans in providing justice, not just convictions.

In spite of its reputation as a tough-on-crime state, Texas is leading the way in exonerations. Since 2001, 30 Texas inmates have been exonerated and released based on DNA evidence, the most of any state, according to the Innocence Project, a nationwide legal advocacy group.

The Innocence Project of Texas, the state branch of the advocacy group, provided the lead attorney in Chatman’s case. IPOT is a volunteer group of attorneys and students from five Texas law schools.

IPOT helps provide justice for Texas inmates, usually in cases when DNA evidence wasn’t available at trial. The group has teamed with Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins to review more than 400 claims of actual innocence in which DNA evidence could reverse a conviction, according to IPOT.

Watkins was nominated as a 2007 Texan of the Year in large part because of his efforts in securing release for innocent inmates. His office boasts a 98.5 percent conviction rate, but he says his approach is, “smart on crime,” rather than tough. To prevent the wrongly convicted from suffering years of injustice, Watkins established a conviction integrity unit to establish cases in which DNA evidence could exonerate inmates, according to IPOT.

The number of exonerations in Texas, the highest in the country, is significant and points to the state’s interest in seeking justice – belated though it may be. This interest is a change from the hang ’em high outlook of the past. Or is it?

Texas claims the most DNA-based exonerations, but not without a tinge of irony. The state also executes the most inmates – 26 just last year, or 60 percent of the nation’s total, according to The New York Times.

It is the state’s penchant for executions that makes the cause of Watkins and IPOT even more critical. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Web site, Texas houses 371 inmates on death row. Imagine if even one death row inmate was able to prove innocence with the help of Watkins’ integrity unit or with IPOT.

With the aid of IPOT, wrongly convicted Texas inmates have an opportunity to prove innocence. The state’s willingness to admit DNA evidence in cases of convicted inmates is commendable, and the work of IPOT even more so.

But, unless Texas prosecutors take a cue from Watkins and begin to pursue justice over convictions, the state’s large number of exonerations is moot.

Just ask Charles Chatman.