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Editorial: Three capital cases illustrate how tactics trump truth
Friday, February 26, 2010
The Dallas Morning News Editorial Board
Convicted killer Charles Dean Hood is getting a new day in court, but not for all the right reasons. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted him a new sentencing hearing, but that's beside the point.
The point is that Hood was convicted of murder in a scenario right out of Desperate Housewives. The Collin County judge who gazed out over the courtroom during the trial in 1990 would see a district attorney who had been in her bed. Their secret tryst – even though they had broken it off by trial time – represents such an obvious possibility of bias that any reasonable mind would tell the court to try the whole case again and keep it clean.
Appellate attorneys for Hood outed the affair in 2008, putting former District Attorney Tom O'Connell and former Judge Verla Sue Holland under oath. The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, refused on procedural grounds to grant a new trial based on complaints of corrupted justice.
The court did halt Hood's execution to take another look at the fairness of sentencing, and last week, judges ordered prosecutors back in court to re-do those proceedings.
Where does that leave the question of whether former lovers should have tried a case with a man's life at stake? The U.S. Supreme Court now is considering that, and fortunately so. Texans who care about justice can hope that a court well insulated from the political stickiness of the Hood case will finally take a clear-eyed view of what was going on in that courtroom.
No one is suggesting that the Hood jury got the question of guilt wrong; the evidence against him was overwhelming. But the courtroom is no place to tolerate little secrets when a life-and-death question hangs in the balance.
That position is supported in a petition to the Supreme Court by 21 former judges, prosecutors and other officials, including former FBI Director William Sessions and former Texas Gov. Mark White.
The Hood trial is one of three Texas capital murder cases lined up before the Supreme Court – all revealing how legal jousting has become more important than pure justice. All increasing our resolve that the death penalty should be abolished.
Earlier this month, a judge held up the execution of Hank Skinner in a 1993 triple murder out of the Panhandle. Again, procedure was at issue, this time the death warrant. The Supreme Court is being asked to take on the far more important issue of whether testing should be ordered on evidence that hasn't undergone DNA analysis. Facts in the case indicate that the answer is yes.
Finally, there's the case of Delma Banks, convicted in a 30-year-old murder near Texarkana. He awaits word from the Supreme Court on complaints that authorities hid the fact they used testimony from a paid police snitch and a shaky witness who was intensively coached.
The chess game continues, more a matter of tactics than truth-finding. That's no way for Texas to determine who lives and who dies.
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