The following was originally published in Reason Magazine.
Texas Justice on Trial
A new movie and TV show spotlight the legacy of race and injustice in the Lone Star State
Radley Balko | May 8, 2009
The new movie American Violet is based on the real story of Regina Kelly, a woman from the small town of Hearne, Texas who was wrongly arrested during a drug sweep on a public housing complex. Residents say the sweeps happened every year. Cops toting big guns and dressed in SWAT gear would jump out of moving vans (and once even a helicopter) and proceed to weed out a large portion of the town's black population. In November 2000, Kelly was one of 26 arrested. All but one of them were black. She was innocent. (At first she thought she had been arrested for overdue parking tickets.)
Facing 15-20 years in jail for selling drugs in a school zone, Kelly was pressured by her public defender to take a plea that would have given her probation. Other women in the complex had already done so, including some that Kelly suspects are also innocent. She refused. Pleading guilty would have made her a felon, costing her to forfeit her housing and possibly lose custody of her children. So she waited for her trial.
Five months later the charges were dropped. During the first trial that resulted from the mass arrests, it came out that the police informant—whose word was basically the only evidence that the police had in many of the cases—had been lying. But by that point several people had already accepted plea aggrangements and been duly convicted.
Thus far American Violet has been warmly reviewed. But some critics have balked at the movie's ham-handedness, noting that the villains—the racist district attorney and the hapless public defender—come off as flat and cliched. They're right. Much of the movie does follow the worn template of the southern courtroom drama, right down to the fish-out-of-water Jewish lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union who awkwardly arrives in town to save the day.
But there's no reason to blame screenwriter Bill Haney. That's how the story actually happened. Sure, it would be nice to show a district attorney who had learned from his mistakes, who vowed to temper his pursuit of future convictions by admitting that launching broad drug sweeps based only on the word of shady informants will sometimes result in the arrest of innocent people.
The problem is that if the film had shown that sort of character development, it would no longer be true to the story it's based on. Texas District Attorney John Paschall didn't change one bit. After dropping the charges against Kelly and the others who hadn't yet accepted plea bargains, he said he was still certain they were guilty—just as he does in the movie. He told the Dallas Morning News, "The only way I'd watch [American Violet], I'd have to be handcuffed, tied to a chair and you'd have to tape my eyes open."
If American Violet feels preachy and overbearing at times, it's because the truth itself is sometimes hard to believe. The new reality show Dallas DNA, which debuted last week on the cable network Investigation Discovery, is a good illustration. The show follows Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins as he attempts to uncover and correct the wrongful convictions of his predecessors, most notably the longtime law-and-order legend Henry Wade.
Watkins, a former defense attorney, became Texas's first black district attorney after being swept into office in the anti-GOP backlash of 2006. He has since made national headlines by setting up what he calls a Conviction Integrity Unit, which consists of assistant district attorneys whose sole job is to work with groups like the Texas Innocence Project to find possible incidences of wrongful conviction.
In an interview with Reason last year, Watkins discussed how he's trying to purge his office of the poisonous culture that long pervaded its halls, a culture so corrupt that Watkins says prosecutors considered getting the innocent convicted as guilty to be a badge of honor—a testament to their power in the courtroom.
That might seem far-fetched until you consider that DNA testing has so far exonerated 18 people in Dallas, which is more than any other city in the country (and more than most states). And by Watkins own admission, he is really just getting started. His office is currently reviewing more than 100 other cases, and there are hundreds more to sort through. And these, of course, are only those cases for which DNA testing could be dispositive of someone's guilt.
Dallas' hang 'em high culture was uniquely oblivious to concepts like fairness and justice over the years, and the high number of exonerations is likely to rise. Consider this: Facing a budget shortfall in the the early 1980s, the county started sending its biological evidence to a private lab for storage. That evidence has been preserved, allowing Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit to go back 30 years in search of wrongful convictions. In other jurisdictions, evidence from older cases has usually deteriorated, or has been destroyed.
Dallas DNA isn't fictionalized, but it's just as moving in places as American Violet. More notably, viewers unfamiliar with groups like the Innocence Project or with the spate of DNA exonerations we've seen over the last decade may well find parts of the show just as implausible as the more melodramatic portions of the movie.
After 40 years of "get tough on crime" rhetoric and policies, we can now clearly measure the impact on the country's criminal justice system. The sort of multi-jurisdictional drug task forces that led to the raids and wrongful arrests in Texas may have been phased out in that state, but they still thrive—complete with federal funding—in most other states. Watkins has made headlines precisely because he's such a rare specimen, a prosecutor who is actively seeking out and correcting wrongful convictions, instead of fighting like hell to preserve them.
In that sense, both Dallas DNA and American Violet have satisfying endings. You're left with the feeling that justice prevailed, even if it took a long time coming. For productions dealing with the inadequacies of the criminal justice system, that may be the most glaring "truth is stranger than fiction" moment of all.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.