Kevin Johnson writes, "Reality show on DNA exoneration stirs ethics issues," for USA Today.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who has assisted in the release of 10 wrongly convicted men since taking office in 2007, says the goal of Dallas DNA, scheduled for launch on Investigation Discovery on cable April 28, is to "make justice better by showing the good, the bad and the ugly."
Some legal analysts say the series could exploit the suffering of victims — including the wrongly convicted — in the name of entertainment.
"I'd find that very troubling," says Rob Warden, executive director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions. "I wholeheartedly favor calling attention to the innocence movement, and I'm delighted with what Craig Watkins has done while in office, but there are ethical obstacles that have to be negotiated very carefully."
Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel to the Innocence Project of Texas, says the show is a vehicle to boost Watkins' political career.
Watkins denies that the series poses ethical risks or that he was motivated by politics. He says the public needs to see how the process works. "At the end of the day, it will build better trust," he says.
Investigation Discovery, part of Discovery Communications, focused on Texas because Dallas County has had more convicts exonerated after DNA testing than any county in the nation.
Since 2001, 19 people there have been exonerated based on DNA evidence, including some who served more than two decades in prison. Nationally, there have been 235 post-conviction DNA exonerations since 1989, according to the Innocence Project, a New York City-based group that uses DNA evidence to free the wrongly convicted.
"When you are talking about a person's personal freedom, there are no higher stakes," says Clark Bunting, president of Discovery's emerging networks. "This is shining a light in a dark corner."
Bunting and Christo Doyle, Dallas DNA's executive producer, say the series avoided ethical problems by letting Watkins view "rough cuts" of the six-part series in advance. If he felt the content breached attorney-client privilege, jeopardized pending cases or violated other legal rules, that material was cut, Bunting says.
Watkins says cameras and network employees were barred from meetings in which the district attorney and staffers decide whether to pursue the death penalty. Watkins has been reviewing about 40 death penalty convictions.
The first episode features the September exoneration of Johnnie Lindsey, 56, who was convicted in a 1981 rape case and spent 26 years in prison.