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Questions Of an Affair Tainting A Trial
By ADAM LIPTAK / Columnist, The New York Times Sidebar
The New York Times / Published: February 22, 2010
WASHINGTON - Charles Dean Hood was sentenced to death in 1990 by a Texas judge who had been sleeping with the prosecutor in his case. It took Mr. Hood almost 20 years to establish that fact.
But he finally managed to force the two officials to testify about their rumored affair in the fall of 2008. They admitted it.
Texas’s highest court for criminal matters, its Court of Criminal Appeals, considered all of this and concluded that Mr. Hood should be executed anyway. In a 6-to-3 decision in September, the court told Mr. Hood that he had taken too long to raise the issue of whether a love affair between a judge and a prosecutor amounted to a conflict of interest.
“A judge who has engaged in an intimate, extramarital, sexual relationship with the prosecutor trying a capital murder case before her has a conflict of interest and must recuse herself,” the brief from the ethics experts said. “Of all the courts to have considered the issue, only the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in this case failed to recognize this imperative.”
The affair itself, as described in the depositions of the two former lovers, sounded tawdry and sad.
Judge Verla Sue Holland, who presided over Mr. Hood’s case in a district court in Collin County, Tex., testified that she and the prosecutor, Thomas S. O’Connell Jr., had had sex at each other's homes when their spouses were away. This happened, she said, seven or eight times.
Mr. O’Connell did not seem especially romantic. Judge Holland testified that he once gave her a picture of a polar bear with a matching cup. Another time he gave her a chafing dish.
He never stayed the night. “I had a truck that everybody recognized,” Mr. O’Connell explained.
And he might have been more sympathetic when Judge Holland’s mother died.
“Tom didn’t send a card,” the judge testified. “He didn’t send flowers. He didn’t come by. He didn’t call. You know, I think that’s pretty callous.”
Asked if they had professed their love to each other, Judge Holland sounded wistful. “Yeah,” she said. “Yes. I loved him.”
Judge Holland was elected to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1996, served for five years and sat with eight of the nine judges who considered her conduct last September. The exception was Judge Cathy Cochran, one of four women on the court and the author of the dissenting opinion.
Judge Cochran took a stab at characterizing the relationship in a footnote. It was misleading, Judge Cochran wrote, to say that Judge Holland and Mr. O’Connell had “an intimate sexual relationship,” though she conceded that the phrase was “literally true.”
“Theirs was hardly the torrid relationship of romance novels,” Judge Cochran clarified. It was, rather, “a close personal relationship that, on a few rare occasions, dipped into intimacy.”
Whatever the precise contours and intensity of the affair, Judge Holland did testify that she would have disqualified herself from Mr. Hood’s case had his lawyers asked. But she also said she and Mr. O’Connell had kept their extramarital affair secret. She said it ended in 1987, three years before Mr. Hood’s trial.
In her deposition, Judge Holland said she had lately become angry with Mr. Hood’s lawyers for “annihilating my reputation.” She said she had asked the attorney general’s office to represent her in Mr. Hood’s challenge to her conduct because she thought she needed to fight back. She was “tired of laying over,” she said, and “getting licked without any input.”
Mr. Hood was convicted of murdering a couple he had been living with, Ronald Williamson and Tracie Lynn Wallace, in Plano, Tex., in 1989.
The district attorney in Collin County, John R. Roach, has said that the case should not be reopened in light of the gravity of those crimes and Mr. Hood’s delay in pursuing rumors of the affair. Mr. Roach added that there was no need for a categorical rule against a little romance.
“The existence of a prior sexual relationship between a judge and a prosecutor is not cause to absolutely disqualify a judge,” Mr. Roach told the appeals court last year. “At some point, the past romantic relationships, of even public figures, become a matter that is entitled to some privacy.”
John R. Rolater Jr., a lawyer in Mr. Roach’s office, declined to elaborate. “We have no comment at this time because of the pending litigation,” Mr. Rolater said Friday in an e-mail message.
The Supreme Court has lately taken some interest in the integrity of the judicial system.
Last year, it ruled that millions of dollars in campaign spending on behalf of a West Virginia judge was reason enough to require his disqualification from a case involving his supporter.
“The probability of actual bias on the part of the judge,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, was “too high to be constitutionally tolerable.”
And last month, the Supreme Court ordered the federal appeals court in Atlanta to have another look at a case in which jurors in a capital trial gave a trial judge an odd gift — a penis made of chocolate.
“From beginning to end,” the unsigned majority decision said, “judicial proceedings conducted for the purpose of deciding whether a defendant shall be put to death must be conducted with dignity and respect.”
To review the bidding: Campaign spending may undermine the integrity of the judicial system. The same goes for a gag gift of confectionary genitalia. But a love affair between the judge and prosecutor in a death penalty case is, in Texas, at least, another matter.
Also see commentary from Grits for Breakfast.
And BRIEF OF FORMER JUDGES, STATE OFFICIALS, AND PROSECUTORS AS AMICI CURIAE IN SUPPORT OF PETITIONER filed before the US Supreme Court. (Bill notes, this is worth reading. Look at who signed it.)
I'm shocked no one has commented on this story. This is important!
I want to take for a minute, Charles Hood of this equations, and first look and the heirachy of our democracy.
We see a lot on this blog about transportation policy (which roads need HOV, which need tolls, what local taxes are needed to pay for roads). We see a lot on campaign tactics (who's endorsing who, who has a complete resume, who's funding what campaign). We also see a lot about other local issues.
But, those issues are secondary. Each of those issues rests first on the fundamentals of our systems.
For example, if the legislative process was determined by who was sleeping with Lt. Governor Dewhurst, it would discredit how laws are debated and passed - regardless of the merits of the bill.
If Keith Self was sleeping with the woman who sued the county for harassment by Judge Raleeh, it would cast doubt when Self voted to approve a six figure settlement agreement for her.
The point is, our system of and policy making rests on some basic sense of purity in the system. Without that, surely we can still make decisions and policies, but those who must abide by it feel contempt, anger, distrust, and resentment to the institutions which, in theory, derive their power from those who they serve.
Now, add Mr. Hood back in. Verla Sue Holland, mother of a sitting Plano City Councilwoman, was being banged by Tom O'Connell, former DA and endorser of current judicial candidates (which is a DISGRACE), when she sentenced a man to die. Then, she went to work for Texas' highest criminal court where she smoked cigars (perhaps in the Clinton/Lewinsky sense) with the judges now hearing this case, and coincidentally, they've sided with her.
Now, current judge of the 296th District Court (John Roach) has to defer his authority on the case (because his dad, now the DA, who inherited this mess from Mr. O'Connell, won't set things right) and pass it on to another judge, who is being asked to sign a death warrant commanding the state to put a lethal dose of drugs into a man's arm, knowing that the persons who started the mess knew each other (in the biblical sense).
Almost everyone agrees that this is a disgrace to our justice system. And yet, we're relying on judges in Washington DC to fix our mess.
It's sad. It's embarrassing. It's a shame.
I'm sure Hood will have is day and burn for it, but in the flames of eternity will be the lying, unethical, and tarnished souls of Tom O'Connell and Verla Sue Holland.
Everyone know's it & they are just now getting around to saying it.
Collin County Justice is the laughing stock of the U.S.
They allowed "politics" to eat it alive, & will not even take one step to clean it up.
The average Joe has not got a chance for a "fair" trial in Collin
County or the Plano City Council.
Politics has it locked down.
It's the same bunch that forked over a multimillion dollar no bid contract to Sam Johnson's son a few years ago. Johnson's son doesn't even live in Texas, much less the Third District. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
It's the same bunch that in September awarded a "competitive" bid to Sam Johnson's son. Competitive is in quotes because Sam Johnson's son wrote the Request for Proposal in May. LOL
Additional comments from that Mad Hatter's Tea Party: Judge Self is reported to have said that it was OK to award the bid to Bob Johnson because the Fusion System was so customized that only Bob Johnson could operate it.
What I want to know is--Why didn't someone challenge Judge Self regarding what would happen to a multimillion dollar system that only one person can operate if that one person were to suddenly die?
Judge Self appears to be somewhat short of the wisdom and thoughtfulness that are normally required for judges.
IF YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT THE FUSION CENTER SCANDAL, THEN ASK BILL. HE WILL GIVE YOU AN EAR FULL.
The Observer comments:
Emma, thank you for your kind words, but the truth of the matter is that this is a completely different set of good old boys.
Keith Self and the Commissioners Court have absolutely no control (other than budgetary) over the county's judicial system.
The District Attorney answers to himself and the voters. He is the one most able to affect change.
The District Court Judges likewise answer to themselves, to the appeals courts and to the voters.
Change must come at the polls.
I'm going to repeat here a comment I made in another thread. I ask my readers to indulge me in the repetition.
The O'Connell/Holland 'affair' was no small lapse in morals. The affair itself was merely tawdry, but the lies and deceit that followed were serious violations of ethics and cast grave doubt on the ability of the Collin County Criminal Justice system to actually dispense justice.
Their affair casts doubt, not only on the conviction of Charles Dean Hood, but on unnumbered defendants. Our justice system was badly wounded by these two. Our taxpayers may face a huge financial liability. And there may be innocent people condemned by a process that was, by definition, unfair.
I have been outraged since this story came to light. My outrage is not solely directed at the illicit lovers but at the entire Collin County Bar, and the Judges and the Prosecutors who knew or strongly suspected that there was this unethical relationship between a judge and DA but stood by in silence as defendant after defendant was condemned by this duo.
My outrage is not in the least assuaged by the current situation where the DA is still fighting to keep Hood from receiving his fair trial, where most of the bar is still silent and where respected members of the bar believe it is OK to brag that O'Connell supports them. Where citizens continue to excuse actions that should be inexcusable by returning to office those whose silence abetted the corruption of our courts.
Look at the Amici Curiae brief filed before the Supreme Court. It is signed by former governors, US district judges, US attorneys, a former director of the FBI and other distinguished legal minds -- but not one, not one single signature is from a Collin County attorney or jurist. Not one.
This case makes it clear - Collin County's justice system is sick. The O'Connell/Holland affair is both a symptom and the effect of this sickness. The system's continued acceptance and protection of these two is the proof of that illness.
I know we have many fine, caring and ethical lawyers (and judges) in Collin County. But the truth is many of them compromised their ethics when they stood silent. There needs to be a reckoning.
And we will never have that reckoning if we can not confront the wrongs done by those whose actions are in defiance of our notions of justice. The O'Connells and the Hollands among us must not be allowed to be excused without confession and restitution. To do any less is a perversion of our justice system. They corrupt us all.
Will YOU consider voting for a Democrat in November to be DA or a judge or anything in Collin County ... OR ... will the same old political sentiments prevail? Unless you actually VOTE change, it will NEVER ever happen.
And in Collin County, THAT means voting for a different political party. After all, can it be ANY worse?
Your point appears to be that there is a systemic problem. Now if that is true, consider how that impacts decisions made in family law concerning Parental Rights.
I'm not certain that parental rights are the issue here. I can't see how a judge sleeping with a prosecutor in a capital murder case relates in any way to your perception that the burden of proof should be raised in custody cases - which I submit is more semantics than sound legal theory.
Perhaps it goes to larger imperfections in the judiciary, but this case simply isn't about a general dissatisfaction with state family law.
Rather, this case is about the arrogance of certain members of the judiciary and the hole in the sand dug by so many in the legal community.
I think the issues demonstrated in the Hood case, and subsequent fall out, are quite different that the standard of proof you desire in custody cases.
I admire your zeal, but don't think its related here.
And of course, I disagree. I think you missed the point of my comments although we probably should take further comments offline. I made mo comment about the burden of proof in custody cases and I am not comfortable with your thought that applying the Constitution to divorce law ia a matter of semantics (some how the Constitution does notapply to people with certain attributes?). However, none of this has anything to do with my point.
My point is that it goes way beyomd the Hood case amd speaks to a systemic problem. This same attitude is applied to decisions made about our families. This is the point and that ought to offemd you.
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