Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Justice should be blind - but not bound and gagged!

I'm outraged to learn of a case in Texas where a man was sentenced to death in a trial where the judge and chief prosecutor had been engaged in an illicit affair for years. According to Salon:

If anyone had any doubt that the Texas justice system operates in a parallel universe, look no further than the latest decision by the state's highest court in the case of death-row inmate Charles Dean Hood. On Wednesday the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) said it wasn't interested in examining whether there was a conflict of interest in Hood's 1990 trial simply because District Attorney Thomas S. O'Connell Jr., Hood's prosecutor, had had a long-term sexual relationship with presiding Judge Verla Sue Holland, an affair the two tried to hide for 20 years.

In 1989, Hood was convicted of murdering Ronald Williamson and Tracie Lynn Wallace. The Holland-O'Connell affair was first reported by Salon in 2005, quoting anonymous sources. Judge Holland refused to either confirm or deny the affair at the time. A year ago this month, Holland and D.A. O'Connell, both since retired, acknowledged under oath that they had had a long-term sexual relationship, which was never revealed during more than a decade of appeals by Hood's lawyers. In her defense, Judge Holland said the affair ended more than two years before Hood's trial. But O'Connell also testified that the two had discussed marriage, and recalled that the affair continued as late as mid-1989 -- just before Hood's trial. He said the two continued to have a "good relationship," sans sex, during and after the trial. He said the two took a trip together in 1991.

Rather than address the affair directly, the CCA ruled 6-3 on a technical question, concluding that Hood should have raised the issue at his original trial. But Hood's lawyers couldn't prove the widespread rumors of the affair before Hood's trial. The CCA had earlier criticized Hood for failing to present any "personal knowledge" of the affair, a virtually impossible hurdle given that, as far as we know, there were no witnesses to the lovemaking other than the two principals, no Paris Hilton-style video, and the judge and her boyfriend weren't talking. The CCA also said Hood's claims were based on "rumor," not fact. But when Hood's lawyers were able to present the detailed facts of the affair, based on the confessions of the principals, the CCA said it was not interested in these facts.

Needless to say, some people have found the behavior of the since-retired judge and prosecutor, and that of the CCA, since Judge Holland was once a member of the very panel weighing her actions, more than a little unsavory. A score of legal ethicists concluded that the participation of the two at Hood's trial was unethical, unprofessional and unconstitutional, and the legal basis for a new trial self-evident. Hood's lawyers insist the affair rendered the conviction and death sentence invalid. Now they will have to convince a federal court that Hood has a right to a new trial.

There's much more at the link.

This is so ridiculous that I'm left struggling for words (aside from profanities, that is). The defendant may be guilty as sin: I don't know. However, it stands to reason that there's no way in the world that any impartial observer could call such a trial 'free and fair', if the judge and prosecutor had more than a professional relationship (although it might be described as 'the oldest sort of professional relationship', I suppose). This is a disgrace to the Texas legal system, and I utterly fail to understand why the conviction and sentence haven't been vacated long ago by a superior Texas court. The fact that they haven't speaks volumes (none of it complimentary) for that State's judges.

One hopes that a federal judge will swiftly do what his State counterparts have so far failed to do, and return the case to the lower court for re-trial. Nothing less will suffice. Meanwhile, I hope the Governor of Texas and that State's legislature will institute a formal and rigorous inquiry into how this case was allowed to drag on for so long, and how such a patently ridiculous ruling by the CCA could ever have been issued. Methinks heads need to roll - and if that means the impeachment of a few sitting judges, so be it. Justice demands it.



LL said...

It clearly should be retried. I can't conceive of the State Appeals Court passing on this one. It's shameful.

Anonymous said...

So much for respect for the Texas justice system.


joe said...

This case is bad enough, but we must consider how many other cases that particular prosecutor tried before that judge and are, therefore, tainted? It's yet another reason I'm really uncomfortable with the death penalty as it's applied. I understand that it's "legal," but it's something that must be pristine in every level of it's implementation, from arrest to needle-stick. This case, and any other involving those two, doesn't pass muster.