The Texas attorney general's office on Thursday took the unusual step of joining the defense in saying that death row inmate Charles Dean Hood should not die until after an investigation into an alleged romantic relationship at the time of his trial between the prosecutor and judge.
Although noting that the facts of the murders of Ronald Williamson and Tracie Lynn Wallace are not in question, Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote in a letter to Collin County District Attorney John Roach, "The impartiality of a defendant's trial and conviction must be beyond reproach."
The letter said that the attorney general's office would file a legal brief today asking that the trial court fully review the matter, even if it means delaying the execution.
"Because of the unique nature of the issues in this matter – and to protect the integrity of the Texas legal system – we will ask the court to thoroughly review the defendant's claims before the execution proceeds," the letter said.
The Hood case has drawn intense scrutiny from legal ethicists, as well as death penalty advocates and opponents who keep a close eye on the nation's busiest death chamber.
The case drew national attention in June when Mr. Hood came within hours of execution as attorneys wrangled over final appeals, including one related to the alleged romance. Though Mr. Hood was cleared for execution, his death warrant expired before the sentence could be carried out.Attorneys stunned
Defense attorneys for Mr. Hood, who have been hammering at the wall of silence surrounding the alleged relationship, were stunned by the attorney general's action.
"I had no idea this was coming," said Greg Wiercioch. "I'm just pleased that the attorney general's office is doing the right thing in this case. I'm astounded."
Whether the unusual move will save Mr. Hood, who is set for execution Wednesday for the 1989 slayings, is unclear. The attorney general's office does not have jurisdiction in the case, but Mr. Wiercioch said the move should make it easier to obtain a stay of execution from either the governor or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Defense attorneys say Mr. Hood's trial would not have been fair if the judge and prosecutor were romantically involved.
Earlier Thursday, District Judge Greg Brewer scheduled a hearing for Monday to consider whether depositions from former Judge Verla Sue Holland and former Collin County District Attorney Tom O'Connell should be taken for a possible civil action.
If Judge Brewer grants the defense request to take depositions, they would be taken immediately after the hearing.
Accordingly, he ordered Judge Holland and Mr. O'Connell to "bring with them" all letters, cards and gifts exchanged between them, all credit card or store receipts for any gifts, all photographs and videotapes depicting the two together, and all e-mails or text messages from the two pertaining to allegations about the romantic relationship.
"We're getting an opportunity for the first time, which is all we've asked for, and that is to argue that we should be entitled to take these depositions before the execution date," Mr. Wiercioch said.
The judge could deny the request to take depositions, or the depositions might not reveal anything helpful to Mr. Hood.
Even if the request to take depositions is granted and information about the alleged affair is revealed, Judge Brewer has no authority to order a stay for Mr. Hood's execution.
Depositions taken in civil court could be used to get a stay in a criminal court proceeding.'Improper lawsuit'
Defense attorneys are not the only ones who have been frustrated by the case. Wednesday is Mr. Hood's sixth scheduled execution date, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. His case has been grinding through the criminal justice system for 18 years.
Earlier Thursday, before the attorney general's letter was released, Collin County Assistant District Attorney John Rolater said "this is an improper lawsuit" that belongs in criminal court, not civil court.
"They can have a hearing, but this is not where the case belongs," he said. "They're just forum shopping and manipulating the system."
He later declined to comment on the attorney general's letter.
Neither Judge Holland nor Mr. O'Connell returned calls for comment.
Rumors about the alleged affair have circulated for years but never gained any traction in criminal court.
Shortly before Mr. Hood's scheduled execution in June, a former assistant district attorney said in an affidavit that the relationship was "common knowledge" around the courthouse.
Defense attorneys tried to use the affidavit to halt the execution so the allegations could be explored, but the courts refused, saying the affidavit contained nothing new because it provided no direct knowledge of the alleged relationship.
Mr. Hood's execution eventually was halted by prison officials who said they ran out of time to conduct the execution before the death warrant expired at midnight.
Defense attorneys then turned to civil courts to get direct information but were once again rebuffed. Many of the judges involved in the case in recent months have recused themselves because they know the two parties involved.
On Wednesday, Judge Robert Dry recused himself, citing a previous business relationship with Judge Holland's ex-husband. Before his recusal, however, he had set a hearing for two days after the scheduled execution.
The same day, 22 former judges and prosecutors, including Judge William Sessions, former
director of the FBI, wrote Gov. Rick Perry asking him to stop the execution.