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.
(Page 2 of 2)
The former assistant, Matthew Goeller, says in the affidavit: "It was common knowledge in the district attorney's office, and the Collin County Bar, in general, that the district attorney, Mr. Tom O'Connell, and the presiding judge of the 296th District Court, Judge Verla Sue Holland, had a romantic relationship." Mr. Goeller is a past president of the county bar association and of the county's criminal defense lawyers association. He worked in the district attorney's office from 1987 to 1996.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
One court rejected the complaint
Holland isn't some back-county judge. From 1997 to 2001, she served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's supreme court for criminal matters.
When Wiercioch brought the Holland-O'Connell affair issue to the attention of that court in June, the judges voted 9 to 0 to toss the complaint out as an abuse of the writ of habeas corpus. The judges said Hood's lawyers should have raised the matter in an appeal filed in 1999. The judges also voted unanimously to allow Hood's scheduled execution to go forward on June 17. The death warrant, however, expired and the execution was postponed until Sept. 10.
There is no indication in the court's opinions that the case involved potentially serious allegations against a former colleague. Holland had served with eight of the nine judges currently on the court. The opinions are marked "Do not publish."
The Holland-O'Connell affair allegations arose again in recent weeks after a Texas judge granted Wiercioch's request for a hearing. But that judge, Robert Dry, set the hearing date for Sept. 12 – two days after Hood's scheduled execution. In a letter to Wiercioch, Judge Dry told the lawyer he had waited too long to raise the issue. He concluded his letter with a disclosure: "I know Judge Holland and Tom O'Connell. It is likely that every local judge knows them. If you are concerned about this, I will consider a motion to recuse."
Dry later removed himself from the case.
The new judge, Greg Brewer, ordered the Monday hearing. At the hearing, the judge will consider whether to order Holland and O'Connell to answer Wiercioch's questions about the alleged affair.
A group of 500 former judges and prosecutors wrote Sept. 2 to Texas Gov. Rick Perry urging him to grant a 30-day reprieve to allow an investigation into the alleged affair.
"If Mr. Hood's claim is proven, we believe that his right to an impartial judge and a fair trial was violated and his conviction and sentence were unconstitutionally obtained," the group writes. "Under the United States and Texas constitutions, the right to an unbiased judge is fundamental to due process."
The group includes William Sessions, former FBI director and a former federal judge and US attorney in Texas; John Gibbons, former third circuit federal appeals court chief judge; and Patricia Wald, former Washington, D.C., appeals court judge. "No court has addressed the merits of Mr. Hood's allegations or permitted discovery of the facts," they wrote.
Two days later, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that his office would be filing a friend-of-the-court brief to urge the judge to "fully review" the affair allegations.