It’s Constitution Day! – But Not in Texas

September 17, 2009

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.”