Thursday, September 4, 2008

Justice, Collin County style

In 1990, Charles Dean Hood was convicted for the murders of Ronald Williamson, his boss, and Tracie Wallace, Williamson's girlfriend. Hood's bloody fingerprints were found at the crime scene (on garbage bags and documents) and the two victims had been shot at close range.

It appeared that the trial would be a slam dunk conviction for Collin County DA Tom O'Connell who decided to try the case himself. Actually it would be more than a slam dunk.

The presiding judge of the 296th Judicial District Court, Verla Sue Holland, was involved in a long-running romantic relationship with O'Connell. Yet, despite the clear conflict of interest, neither disclosed their relationship to Mr. Hood or to his attorney, David Haynes.

Although rumors about the relationship ran rampant through the Collin County courthouse, Mr. Haynes didn't think the issue could be raised at trial absent proof.

Mr. Hood was scheduled to be murdered by the State of Texas on June 17, 2008 but prison officials aborted it when it became clear they could not carry out the sentence prior to midnight.

After securing an affidavit from a former prosecutor in the Collin County DA's Office acknowledging the relationship between O'Connell and Holland, Hood's attorneys filed an appeal alleging the affair prevented Mr. Hood from receiving a fair and impartial trial before Judge Holland.

The State of Texas stayed the execution and rescheduled it for September 10, 2008. At the same time, Mr. Hood's attorneys sought civil relief in the 199th Judicial District Court of Collin County. His attorneys asked Judge Robert Dry to determine whether the conduct of Holland and O'Connell during Hood's trial was ethical.

Judge Dry scheduled a hearing on the civil matter for September 12, 2008 -- too late to afford any relief to Mr. Hood.

To date, Judge Holland has refused to comment on the allegations she was sleeping with the prosecutor during Hood's trial. She said it would be "unethical" for her to comment on a pending case, even though the Texas Constitution says that the judiciary must avoid any appearance of impropriety and must hold itself to exacting standards in order to avoid a loss of public confidence.

The Collin County DA's office has also refused to comment on the allegations.

Judge Holland left her bench in Collin County and served on the Court of Criminal Appeals in the mid-1990's. Since then, Court of Criminal Appeals has refused to force Holland to answer any questions regarding the affair.

Although it was not Judge Holland who convicted (and condemned) Mr. Hood - that was the job of 12 citizens of Collin County, she ruled on motions, objections and proposed charges during the course of the trial.

To that end, the 500-member Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers and dozens of legal ethicists have called Hood's conviction into question and 22 former federal and state judges from Texas and the rest of the country have called on Governor Perry to grant Mr. Hood a reprieve.
Charles Dean Hood may very well be guilty of the murders but there is this little notion of due process that the courts should (at the very least) pay attention to every now and then. This is one of those times.

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