Judge’s Affair with Prosecutor is No Reason to Throw Out Death Sentence

In 1990 Charles Hood was convicted of a heinous double murder in Texas. The presiding judge determined that Mr. Hood should be put to death for his crimes. At the time of the trial and sentencing, rumours had been openly circulating in the legal community that trial Judge Verla Sue Holland was intimately involved with the prosecuting attorney in this capital case.

It took 20 years for Mr. Hood’s legal team to uncover sufficient evidence of their affair to go back to the Court to argue that the relationship between the trial judge and the prosecutor represented a conflict of interest and an apprehension of bias such that Mr. Hood should be granted a new trial.

In 2007 the Appeals Court refused to grant a new hearing, stating that it was now too late to overturn the sentencing decision. Chagrined but undaunted, Mr. Hood applied to the United States Supreme Court.

With the assistance of an expert team of attorneys and ethicists ( 51 in total, including former judges and leading prosectors), Hood filed a comprehensive and scholarly brief to the highest court. Last month, in less than a dozen words, the Supremes declined to hear the case. Why? Well, perhaps because the Texas Appeal Court agreed to take a second look at Hood’s case just before the Supremes weighed in. The Appeal Court still declined to consider the trial judge’s affair, but nevertheless, ordered a new penalty hearing based on an error in the trial judge’s jury instructions.

Those of us who are cynical might say that the State of Texas was afraid of the scrutiny of the USSC. Mr. Hood’s penalty rehearing has not yet taken place and he remains on death row. Her Ladyship noted that had she been asked to recuse herself during the trial, she would have!

Did you know there were 52 executions in the US in 2009, 24 of those in the State of Texas? Death penalty abolitionists say that as of 2005, 119 innocent inmates were released from death row.

I wonder how many wrongfully convicted were executed? A sobering thought.

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3 thoughts on “Judge’s Affair with Prosecutor is No Reason to Throw Out Death Sentence

  1. Sobering indeed.

    LawDiva, have you heard of Hank Skinner’s case? Another Texas death row inmate case around which there has been much drama recently.

    On March 25, 2010, less than an hour before he was scheduled to executed, the US Supreme Court granted a stay of execution for the Texas death row inmate after an appeal for new DNA tests. Mr. Skinner was apparently in the holding cell next to the execution chamber waiting to be executed when he was told of his reprieve. Mr. Skinner is married to a French anti-death penalty campaigner, and his appeal even received support from French president Nicolas Sarkozy, with the French ambassador asking the Texas governor to pardon Mr. Skinner or halt the execution.

    Then, just two weeks ago (May 24), U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether Mr. Skinner should have access to evidence for DNA testing that could clear him of three murders. Mr. Skinner was convicted of murdering his girlfriend and her two adult sons in 1993 but has always maintained his innocence. Some of the evidence from his case still sits there and no one has ever tested to see if Mr. Skinner’s DNA is present or not. Mr. Skinner argues that his inability to get testing of those items shows the inadequacy of the Texas DNA procedures.

    The US Supreme Court justices said they will use Mr. Skinner’s case to decide whether prison inmates may use a federal civil rights law to petition for DNA testing that was not performed prior to their conviction. Federal appeals courts around the country have decided the issue differently. It will be argued in the fall.

    The Innocence Project says that more than 250 people have been exonerated post-conviction through DNA testing, but in 2009 the US Supreme Court ruled that inmates don’t have a “freestanding right” to demand access to DNA evidence for testing. Suing state officials under federal for violations of their constitutional rights is therefore the open possibility Mr. Skinner is now pursuing. If he wins, it will still be a long road ahead before Mr. Skinner. He will still have to argue for DNA testing back in civil court, get the evidence for testing, and then assuming the testing works out in his favor, he must try and use that as sufficient evidence to quash his conviction.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I am aware of Mr. Skinner and have been following his case along with several others. I am the first to stand behind appropriate sentencing for hardcore offenders, particularly murderers, but with the number of wrongfully convicted prisoners being cleared through DNA or more astoundingly, through investigations that were never undertaken at the time of the accused’s trial, it behooves us to take a second look at certain cases. Another disturbing feature of these cases is inadequate legal representation. There is much to be done about these problems.

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