Alleged romantic link raises appeal questions
Legal experts have criticized a judge and a small-town Texas prosecutor,
calling their alleged sexual affair in the years before trying a death
penalty case "stupid" and "a black eye to the system."
They say the alleged affair between former Judge Verla Sue Holland and
ex-Collin County District Attorney Thomas O'Connell raises ethical
questions and could lead to appeals from inmates who claim their trials
were tainted by bias.
"Definitely there are people locked up … saying: 'Wait a minute. I was
convicted in this judge's court,'" said Fred Moss, a Southern Methodist
University law professor. "It's such incredible bad judgment because it
throws every conviction into doubt."
The alleged affair, an apparent open secret 20 years ago in Collin County
legal circles, became part of the public record again last week. Lawyers
for death row inmate Charles Dean Hood sought a stay of execution in the
nation's busiest death penalty state, arguing Holland was biased because
of her relationship with O'Connell.
About 30 former prosecutors and federal and state judges signed a letter
sent to Gov. Rick Perry by lawyers for Hood, convicted in 1990 of fatally
shooting two people in Plano. The letter states that a sexual
relationship, which Hood's lawyers say the judge and prosecutor
acknowledged under oath during depositions last week, "would have had a
significant impact on the ability of the judicial system to accord Mr.
Hood a fair and impartial trial."
Hood received a reprieve, although the alleged affair was not the reason.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wants to reconsider whether the jury
instructions were flawed.
"The appearance of impropriety is absolutely there and it does affect the
integrity of the system," said Rick Hagen, president of the Texas Criminal
Defense Lawyers Association. "And you can't deny that."
Attorneys for Holland and O'Connell declined to discuss their clients'
depositions, citing a gag order. In an affidavit, former assistant
district attorney Matthew Goeller said it was "common knowledge" that the
judge and prosecutor "had a romantic relationship" from at least 1987
until about 1993. Hood was tried in 1990.
Moss, the SMU professor, said such a relationship, if true, "would be so
stupid if they were actually trying cases in her court while they were
having an affair."
"What it does is bring the whole system into question," Moss said. "It's a
real black eye to the system and very unfortunate. It shakes the
confidence of the public in the criminal justice system."
Bill Boyd, Holland's attorney, said Hood's original court-appointed
lawyers were experienced litigators who "were in the courthouse every day
and heard every rumor or innuendo." He said their decision not to ask
Holland to recuse herself is a sign of their faith in her fairness.
"This wasn't their first rodeo," Boyd said. "If there were any hint or
suggestion or chance that they weren't going to get a fair trial, someone
would have raised it."
Neither Holland nor O'Connell have been publicly disciplined by the State
Commission on Judicial Conduct or the State Bar of Texas.
Hood's lawyers have said in court papers that Holland, while on the state
appeals court, recused herself from about 80 % of cases from Collin
County. Her attorney said she routinely stepped aside whenever she had any
prior involvement in a case, such as being the presiding judge or simply
signing a search warrant.
Boyd said Holland is embarrassed by the attention brought by the case.
O'Connell's attorney, Richard A. Sayles, said the ex-prosecutor regrets
the controversy, adding, "On a professional level, I don't think he is
upset that defense lawyers are trying every possible grounds they have for
a stay of execution."
O'Connell was the county's elected district attorney from 1971-82 and from
1987-2002. Holland was a state district judge from 1974-96 before moving
on to the Court of Criminal Appeals from 1997-2002. Both are retired.
McKinney, the county seat, was a small Texas town when O'Connell was first
elected, still decades away from becoming a wealthy bedroom community to
Dallas. Those small-town roots still show.
Boyd, now Holland's attorney, is a former DA who hired O'Connell as an
assistant prosecutor. Once O'Connell became the DA, he hired Holland as
one of his two assistant prosecutors. She was in charge of juvenile cases
before becoming a judge, said John Charles Hardin, a McKinney lawyer since
County officials say it is impossible to determine how many cases
O'Connell prosecuted in Holland's court. O'Connell, as an elected
official, had a vested interest in every one of them. But it was unusual
for the district attorney to appear in the courtroom.
"It was very rare for Tom O'Connell to actually try a case," Hardin said.
"He was an administrator. He ran his office and let his assistants manage
Besides Hood, there are four other death row inmates convicted in Collin
County during the overlapping tenures of O'Connell and Holland. Three were
convicted in front of other judges; a record for the fourth could not be
Still, legal experts expect other inmates and their attorneys will begin
filing appeals, arguing their trials were tainted by the alleged affair
between the judge and prosecutor, both of whom were divorced in the late
Moss said he also expects the appeals court to find a reason to grant a
new trial for Hood, a former topless club bouncer, who was convicted of
killing a 26-year-old former dancer and her 46-year-old boyfriend.
"Any judge is going to say, 'This is an unsafe conviction and so let's
find the legal grounds and reverse it where we don't have to discuss this
dirty laundry in public,'" Moss said. "I would hope they would do it. Do
we really want to send this guy to his maker after this has occurred?"
(source: Associated Press)