Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dallas County Commissioners

Approval of team salaries means DA can continue project for two more years

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

By Kevin Krause -The Dallas Morning News

Dallas County commissioners voted Tuesday to continue funding District Attorney Craig Watkins' DNA evidence review team for two additional years, with the help of a foundation grant.

Dallas County will pay $832,392 over the next two years for the salaries of the two attorneys, an investigator and a paralegal on Mr. Watkins' conviction integrity team that was formed last year.

Commissioners voted 3-1 to continue the funding, with Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield casting the lone dissenting vote. County Judge Jim Foster was absent.

A grant from the Justice, Equality, Human Dignity and Tolerance Foundation will contribute $457,600 toward post-conviction DNA testing.

The foundation had stipulated that the grant money would be available only if the county continued funding the four conviction integrity unit positions.

The Innocence Project of Texas is contributing $36,000.

James Giles, James Waller and Charles Chatman – three of the 15 men exonerated after being wrongly convicted in Dallas County and sentenced to prison – stood while Mr. Watkins addressed the commissioners.

"We're not using this as a political football," Mr. Watkins told commissioners. "We are blazing a trail here in Dallas County."

Mr. Mayfield opposed the DNA unit last year and reiterated his opposition Tuesday, saying defense lawyers can handle the task, working with the Innocence Project.

"This is overkill," he said. "We have a process in place and that process is working fine.

" Mr. Watkins, who has repeatedly clashed with Mr. Mayfield, said he's playing politics with the issue.

"Hopefully, he'll see the light some day," he said.

Alcohol hearings

Also on Tuesday, commissioners voted to make the county judge once again responsible for hearing alcohol permit and license applications.

That role had been delegated to the county clerk since 1989, after former County Judge Lee Jackson sought a change in state law.

But County Clerk John Warren said he didn't want to do it anymore, because the laws don't give citizens any recourse to fight alcohol license applications. He said it appears as if alcohol lobbyists wrote the laws.

"It's a waste of time for anyone to file a protest," Mr. Warren said. "It gives them false hope. There's nothing they can do."

Hearings are held about two or three times a year, he said. Judge Foster will now hear the applications.

Take-home car

Also on Tuesday, commissioners signed a letter to Precinct 5 Constable Jaime Cortes, notifying him that one of his employees, Sgt. Howard Watson, will lose his take-home county vehicle due to an accident while he was off-duty.

The district attorney's civil division will demand reimbursement from Sgt. Watson for repairs in the September 2007 crash, according to the letter. The district attorney's office will also decide whether Sgt. Watson committed any crimes, specifically misusing government property with the intent to obtain a benefit.

Last week, the commissioners voted against sending a letter to Mr. Watkins about two accidents he was involved in while driving a county vehicle.

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