Tuesday evening, 24 hours before he was due to be put to death by lethal injection, convicted murderer Charles Dean Hood was granted a stay of execution by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In light of the serious questions raised about the fairness of his trial, that was the correct decision.
What was startling however, was that the court stayed Hood's execution for a reason completely unrelated to those questions. Meanwhile, they dismissed altogether the credible evidence that an improper relationship existed between the judge and prosecutor trying the defendant's capital murder trial.
Attorneys for Hood had argued that a clandestine romantic relationship between the judge, Verla Sue Holland, and prosecutor Thomas S. O'Connell Jr. in Hood's 1990 trial in Collin County just north of Dallas was grounds for a reprieve. But the court dismissed that pleading out of hand.
Instead, the justices revisited a ruling they made in a 2007 pleading in which they rejected Hood's request for a new sentencing hearing. In their latest ruling, the court cited "developments in the law regarding (jury) nullification instructions" as the rationale for stopping the scheduled execution.
This dismissal of substantiated evidence of judicial and ethical misconduct flies in the face of the Texas Constitution, which demands that a judge who presides over a case not only be absolutely impartial, "but must appear to be impartial so that no doubts or suspicions exist as to the fairness or integrity of the court."
Apparently, few in the Collin County legal community were unaware of the relationship between Holland and O'Connell, but no one came forward until early June, when a former assistant district attorney testified that it was "common knowledge" in county legal circles that the pair had a "romantic relationship" for several years, including during the time of the trial.
The defense had a difficult time finding a civil court judge willing to compel the pair to testify about their relationship. Finally, state District Judge Robert T. Dry accepted the case.
Two weeks ago he set a hearing for Sept. 12. If the Texas high court had not stayed the executioner's hand this week, that hearing would have come a full two days after Hood's death by lethal injection.
"In reality, you are exploring a civil lawsuit for the estate of Mr. Hood," Dry told defense counsel. The judge also acknowledged that he knew both Holland and O'Connell well, raising legitimate questions about his own impartiality.
Last week, Dry suddenly recused himself, after admitting that he also had been close friends and business partners with Holland's now deceased husband.
The case was transferred to state District Judge Greg Brewer, who held a hearing on Sept. 8 that resulted in Holland and O'Connell being ordered to testify about their relationship. (The affair was confirmed in depositions by both the judge and the prosecutor last week, but that information came too late to be included in the most recent defense pleadings.)
Even without that confirmation, judicial ethics experts from around the country have endorsed the view that the relationship between the judge and the prosecutor would render the trial invalid. Texas' own Attorney General Greg Abbott agreed. In a letter to the Collin County district attorney, Abbott wrote that the "unique" circumstances of the case warranted a closer review to "protect the integrity of the Texas legal system."
Hood was convicted of the 1989 murder and robbery of Ronald Williamson and Tracie Lynn Wallace, a couple he lived with in a Dallas suburb. His fingerprints linked him to the crimes, and he was arrested the next day driving the murdered man's car. The facts of the murders for which Hood was convicted are not in dispute.
What is at stake now is not only his fate, but the integrity of the Texas judicial system. Now that the fact of a relationship between the judge and prosecutor has been established, the Court of Criminal Appeals should reconsider its denial of Hood's claims on this matter and grant him a new trial.
Hood may be guilty. But the public should not be satisfied on that point in the absence of a fair trial where the prescribed sentence for a guilty verdict is lethal injection. Even the most wretched murderer deserves to be tried before a judge whose impartiality is not impaired by an intimate relationship with the very prosecutor working to send him to death row.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Wait a minute! A stay of execution for convicted murderer Charles Hood raises troubling questions of judicial integrity
Houston Chronicle has an editorial questioning Court of Criminal Appeal's decision to dismiss the credible evidence that an improper relationship existed between the judge and prosecutor trying Charles Hood's capital murder trial.