Courts Ignore Secret Affair in TX Death Penalty Case

EqJustUnderLawIn the context of the Troy Davis case, I’ve written quite a bit about how the US Supreme Court, so far, as avoided taking a definitive position on whether it’s constitutional to execute someone who can establish his innocence.  Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined an opportunity to decide whether a sexual affair between a judge and prosecutor resulted in an unfair trial for the defendant. 

Both of these questions ought to be no-brainers.  No, you should never execute people who have established their innocence; and yes, a judge-prosecutor romance should lead to a new trial for the defendant.  But for Charles Dean Hood, whose case the high Court brushed off yesterday, no new trial will be forthcoming.  He will remain on death row in Texas, awaiting a re-sentencing hearing on an unrelated issue.

In response, former Texas Governor Mark White, and former FBI director William Sessions, both of whom now work for criminal justice reforms with the Constitution Project, admonished the Court for its “indifference to such paramount injustice” and said:

“The relationship between the judge and prosecutor in this case breached every standard of fairness that we rightfully expect from our country’s criminal justice system, casting grave doubt on the impartiality of the trial in this case and tarnishing the reputation of the judiciary and our criminal justice system as a whole.”

A criminal justice system is only effective when the public has faith in its fairness and accuracy.  The failure of the courts in this case to address a blatantly obvious injustice can only shake public confidence in our system’s ability to be fair and get things right.  This is bad for all of us.  Our courts need to step up to the plate and hear these fundamental questions, instead of continually passing them off until they disappear.

Texas Death Sentence Overturned; Judge-Prosecutor Affair Overlooked

Back on September 16, 2009, the day before the 222nd anniversary of the US Constitution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) chose NOT to decide whether Texas death row inmate Charles Dean Hood was denied a fair trial because the judge and prosecutor in his case were sleeping together.  The court avoided taking any responsibility for this embarrassing question by ruling that Mr. Hood should have raised that particular issue earlier, even though he couldn’t – the affair wasn’t confirmed until June of 2008. 

Mr. Hood’s execution had nonetheless been postponed because of a separate issue, a claim that the jury did not properly hear mitigating evidence about his harsh childhood that might have led them to vote for a sentence other than death.  And it was on this considerably less sexy claim that the TCCA today threw out his death sentence and ruled that Charles Dean Hood should get another sentencing hearing. 

Today’s ruling contradicts a decision the TCCA made on the same issue in 2007, when they rejected a new sentencing trial.  And it once again evades the larger question:  Did the judge and prosecutor’s sexual relationship compromise Mr. Hood’s right to a fair trial?   Isn’t this affair an “obvious and outrageous constitutional violation” (as Andrea Keilen of the Texas Defender Service put it)?  A petition on THAT question is now before the US Supreme Court, supported by an impressive array of former judges and prosecutors, including a former Texas Governor.

It’s Constitution Day! – But Not in Texas

Today is Constitution Day.  On this day, September 17, in 1787, the US Constitution was signed by a group of men known collectively these days as the “Founding Fathers”.  Yesterday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) celebrated a day early by denying relief to Charles Dean Hood despite the fact that the judge and prosecutor were sleeping together during his trial. 

Charles Dean Hood received a death sentence in 1990 in Collin Country, Texas for the murders of Ronald Williamson and Tracie Lynn Wallace.  The Honorable Verla Sue Holland served as the judge during his trial while Thomas O’Connel—Collin County’s District Attorney—was the leading prosecutor on the case.  Last year O’Connel and Holland revealed that they had maintained a clandestine sexual affair for a long period of time.  Their relationship coincided with Charles Hood’s trial

The affair was first uncovered last June, two weeks before Hood’s scheduled execution, when a Collin County assistant district attorney revealed it in an affidavit.  The affair was subsequently confirmed by O’Connel and Holland during separate official testimonies.  In the meantime, Hood’s execution was postponed, as the state was not able to carry it out before the expiration of his death warrant.

Following the discovery of the affair, Mr. Hood’s case was brought in front of the TCCA for reconsideration.  Although eight of the nine judges on the court had previously worked with Judge Holland, they still chose to review the case.  Yesterday, in a 6-3 vote, in a dense, almost unreadably bureaucratic 3-page opinion, they dismissed the appeal on the grounds that the issue of Holland and O’Connel’s sexual relations should have been raised earlier, a curious interpretation of procedural rules given the fact that neither the judge nor the prosecutor admitted to the affair until mid-2008, when a civil court ordered them to testify under oath.  

In a more detailed 9-page dissent, the three judge minority argued that the issue of the illicit affair could not have been raised earlier because of “… the principals’ longstanding efforts to keep the affair hidden.” No kidding.

But should that even matter?  Did I mention that the judge and prosecutor were sleeping together? … how is that not enough to merit a new trial?  Whatever its tortured logic, the TCCA ruling clearly violates basic fair trial protections established by the Constitution whose 222nd anniversary we celebrate today.

In the aftermath of the verdict, the Texas Defender Service issued a statement, noting that the TCCA decision supports “the perception that justice is skewed in Texas” and that “obvious and outrageous violations of the Constitution are acceptable in death penalty cases.”  The statement also rightly points out that the Court’s ruling “rewards the judge and prosecutor for maintaining a wall of silence about their affair for nearly two decades.”  The Texas Defender Service skillfully sums up the ramifications of the decision by stating “No one would want to be prosecuted for a parking violation – let alone for capital murder — by a district attorney who is sleeping with the judge.”