Did a judge-prosecutor romance taint Texas murder trial?
Sept. 8 hearing is set on allegations of a secret affair. Defendant faces execution Sept. 10.
The lawyer for a death-row inmate says he is trying to break a "conspiracy of silence" in Texas over whether the district attorney and the judge who presided over his client's 1990 capital murder trial were having a secret romantic relationship.Skip to next paragraph
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The inmate, Charles Dean Hood, is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday.
A Texas judge has ordered a hearing into the issue on Monday morning. The judge has also ordered the former judge and former district attorney to be prepared to answer questions under oath about their alleged affair and potentially surrender any documentary evidence of a relationship.
The unusual twists and turns in the Hood case are attracting national attention and adding fuel to an already-heated debate over capital punishment in Texas.
Mr. Hood's lawyer, Gregory Wiercioch, has been trying for months to persuade the Texas judiciary to investigate the alleged secret relationship. He says former Judge Verla Sue Holland and former Collin County District Attorney Thomas O'Connell may believe that their private relationship did not taint Hood's trial. But, he says, it should not be up to a judge and prosecutor to secretly decide such an issue – particularly when the defendant was on trial for his life.
"No attorney knowing [of this relationship] would have allowed her to stay on and preside over this trial," Mr. Wiercioch says. "I wouldn't want her presiding over a parking ticket, let alone a capital murder trial."
The lawyer says others in Collin County, north of Dallas, were aware of the affair but did nothing. "There was this sense that we are going to keep it secret, and whoever their friends were that socialized with them – and knew of the relationship – those people kept it secret as part of a conspiracy of silence," Wiercioch says.
Fairness of other trials at stake, too
The allegation has been swirling in Texas legal circles for years, but no formal investigation has been undertaken. Judge Holland and Mr. O'Connell, both now retired, have declined to discuss the issue.
"It is a matter of Texas courts turning an absolute blind eye to a situation that is in plain sight," says Steve Hall, director of the Standdown Texas Project, a criminal justice reform group. "Legal ethicists have been outraged by the facts. This should not even be a close call."
If true, the secret affair would violate ethics regulations governing both judges and prosecutors, legal experts say. In addition, these experts say, it would raise questions not only about the fairness of Hood's murder trial but also of the fairness of every criminal case charged by O'Connell's office and tried before Judge Holland during their alleged affair.
According to an affidavit by a former assistant district attorney in O'Connell's office, the Holland-O'Connell relationship began prior to 1987 and lasted until 1993. Hood was convicted and sentenced to death in September 1990 for the shooting deaths of a man and woman in Plano, Texas, in 1989.