Reporting Jack Fink
DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – After much courtroom drama and controversy, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins scored a major legal victory.
A specially appointed judge, Bob Brotherton, acquitted him on a contempt charge that’s been hanging over his head for five months.
The county’s top prosecutor became a defendant, when Dallas County Judge Lena Levario held him in contempt last March, after Watkins refused to testify about his decision to prosecute oil heir Albert Hill the third on mortgage fraud.
After the trial, a relieved Watkins told reporters, “I appreciate the verdict by the judge. He followed the law finally – we got someone to follow the law.”
The special judge found Judge Levario should not have put Watkins on the stand and force him to testify.
One of the special prosecutors in the case, Bob Hinton, says it’s unlikely they’ll appeal the ruling. “The judge followed the law as he saw it, and we don’t have any quarrel with that.”
Hill the third had accused Watkins of prosecutorial misconduct.
Hill claimed the DA indicted him as a favor to one of Watkins’ campaign donors — who was in a legal dispute with Hill.
From the start, Watkins denied any wrong doing, and said his office prosecuted Hill after his own father came forward with evidence against him.
Watkins says he fought the contempt charge after hearing from other district attorneys in the state. “Obviously, they appreciate the fight that I took, the stance that I took. Unfortunately, we had a judge who didn’t know the law or didn’t follow it.”
An attorney for the DA’s office says had Watkins been found guilty of contempt, it could have set a dangerous precedent not only in Dallas County, but across the state.
Chad Baruch told reporters, “If you stop and think about it, the idea of letting a criminal defendant put the DA on the stand and ask him questions before the criminal trial is fairly outrageous.”
In addition to holding Watkins in contempt last March, Judge Levario also dismissed the mortgage fraud charge against Hill the third.
In a statement Friday, Hill’s attorney says, “Judge Lena Levario reviewed hundreds of pages of evidence and heard testimony from several witnesses before deciding in March to dismiss the case against Mr. Hill due to constitutional violations by the District Attorney’s office. Today’s hearing had no effect on that ruling.”
I asked Watkins if he’s going to refile the case against Hill.
He wouldn’t specify, but did have this to say. “Here at the DA’s office, we always make sure that no matter how much money, no matter where you come from, you’re going to face justice in Dallas County as long as I’m district attorney.”
Judge Levario did not return our call seeking comment.
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