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Dallas Gropes toward Justice

Will Dallas overcome a long and shameful history of racism and injustice? Will it establish a reputation for even-handed and
color-blind fairness?

That's the publicly stated goal of the first African American ever elected to the District Attorney's office in Dallas County, Craig Watkins. People here are watching to see if he can make it happen.

In the immediate sense, the question came up because Watkins made a public apology to James Waller after DNA evidence proved that Waller had suffered 23 years, 10 of them in prison, from a false accusation and conviction on child-rape charges. The evidence against him consisted of the child's testimony that he recognized Waller's voice and eyes. The real rapist had worn a mask. The famed Innocence Project of New York arranged for the most modern type of DNA testing to exonerate Waller completely. New technology and dedicated lawyers at the Innocence Project are exposing the deep racism of American courts. In eleven of their other recent cases, DNA testing proved that the legal wheels of Dallas County have been grinding up the innocent.

Dallas holds the record. There are more exonerations in Dallas County than in all but three entire states. Moviegoers might also remember that the prize-winning documentary film, The Thin Blue Line, was about a young transient who was railroaded to prison from a Dallas courtroom under longtime District Attorney Henry Wade. Others may recall that one of the most famous women's rights cases of all time, Roe v. Wade, originated in Dallas with Wade on the male supremacist side. Dallas, by the way, continues to honor Wade in story and legend. They recently named a county justice building for him.

On the other side of the justice equation, Dallas has made itself famous for not prosecuting racist crimes. The policemen accused of drowning three handcuffed African American teens during a "Juneteenth" celebration at Comanche Crossing were let go in Dallas. The policeman who played Russian Roulette against a small Mexican-American boys' head received his slight punishment only after a national outcry. Nobody went to jail for bombing African Americans' homes when they began moving into a Jewish area of town. None of the mob of lynchers who dragged an African American man, on a noose, out the upper window of the Old Red Courthouse (still standing downtown) were ever even identified, much less punished.

International news coverage of Dallas' injustice system has brought the Texas Legislature's attention. Texas Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston has revealed that he will try again this session to pass his bill to create a Texas Innocence Commission to scrutinize cases in the state. Texas state government, of course, has more than sufficient stains on its own skirts. Most recently, the re-elected governor invited his friend Ted Nugent to provide rock music at the inaugural ball. Nugent, notorious for anti-Latino racism, wore a shirt made from the confederate battle flag!

If justice is ever to associate itself with the judicial system in Dallas County, the time is most likely now. The new sheriff, Lupe Valdez, the first woman and the first Spanish-speaking sheriff in county history, and the new African American District Attorney have made it their business to change the sordid course of Dallas judicial history. Progressives are united behind them in the effort.

--Jim Lane

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