death penalty news—-TEXAS

Sept. 26


Attorney general defends actions in investigation of affair between judge,

The state's top lawyer said Thursday that he had expected Texas courts to
"step up and do the right thing" by investigating an affair between the
judge and prosecutor in the trial of condemned killer Charles Dean Hood.

Only when they didn't, did his office publicly intervene in a case that he
says "has called into question the integrity" of the Texas justice system.

Attorney General Greg Abbott's unusual public comments came as he
responded to criticism in the formal court petition filed Thursday by Mr.
Hood's attorneys seeking a new trial because retired Judge Verla Sue
Holland and former Collin County District Attorney Tom O'Connell admitted
having a relationship that the defense says tainted Mr. Hood's right to a
fair trial.

The case has drawn attention from legal ethicists and death penalty
opponents who say it has given the Texas criminal justice system a black

Mr. Abbott said that though his office filed a "friend of the court" brief
urging investigation into the allegations a few days before Mr. Hood's
latest scheduled execution date in September, his office had been working
behind the scenes since the allegations were first raised in court months

Delayed execution

Mr. Abbott pointed out that his office also was closely involved in the
decision not to execute Mr. Hood on an earlier date, in June. On that
occasion, Mr. Hood was twice taken to the death house as attorneys and
judges wrangled long into the night. Mr. Hood's execution did not go
forward despite being cleared by the courts.

"Our office was involved and advising on that process," Mr. Abbott said.
He declined to clarify the role played because "it may arguably be
protected by attorney-client privilege."

At the time, prison officials said they canceled the execution since they
didn't have time to carry it out before the death warrant expired at

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice confirmed the
decision was made "after consulting with the attorney general's office."

The petition said Mr. Abbott's last-minute actions before the September
execution date "raise serious questions about his commitment to justice in
this case."

"That's just rhetoric," Mr. Abbott said. "It sounds like a lot of lawyer
hot air."

Mr. Abbott, who supports the death penalty, said he has not read the
depositions in which the judge and prosecutor admitted having a
long-standing intimate relationship.

He declined to comment on whether Mr. Hood deserves a new trial, but he
said he felt strongly the allegations should be explored before the
sentence is carried out.

"A real triggering event was when it was learned that a hearing was set to
look into this matter days after the execution was set," he said. It was
then that the former Texas Supreme Court judge took public action.

Apparently, some members of Mr. Abbott's own staff were unaware of his
efforts in the Hood case. After the attorney general's office filed the
"friend of the court" brief urging investigation into Mr. Hood's claims,
an assistant attorney general who had been representing Judge Holland
filed a complaint against him with the State Bar of Texas.

"That's what happens when people shoot first and ask questions later," Mr.
Abbott said. "The person filing the complaint had no information about
what me or the office had done months before representation of the judge
was undertaken. We, including me personally, had already taken action in
this case months before Judge Holland contacted our office for

He said that when he learned the assistant attorney general had undertaken
representation of Judge Holland, his office immediately told Judge Holland
she needed to hire her own attorney.

The relationship

Mr. Hood was convicted in 1990 for killing Tracie Lynn Wallace and Ronald
Williamson in Plano. He claims he deserves a new trial because "Judge
Holland created an appearance of impropriety and an impression of possible

The petition filed Thursday seeking a new trial shed more light on the
relationship between Judge Holland and Mr. O'Connell. According to the
petition, Judge Holland told attorneys it began in 1982 and ended in 1987;
Mr. O'Connell recollected it started in 1984 or 1985 and did not end until
1991 or 1992.

The 2 apparently remained good friends even as the romance waned. As late
as 1991, they traveled to Santa Fe together, and Mr. O'Connell attended
Judge Holland's family reunion that same year.

The depositions reportedly said both parties professed their love for each
other during the relationship. Mr. O'Connell said Judge Holland talked
about getting married, but Judge Holland denied that.

Both parties said they kept the relationship secret. "Their sexual
encounters took place at each other's homes when their spouses were away,"
according to the petition.

According to the petition, Judge Holland said during her deposition it was
"absolutely not" improper for her to preside over the Hood case. Her
attorney has said the romance was not going on at the time of Mr. Hood's
arrest and trial.

Neither he nor Mr. O'Connell's attorney could be reached for comment.

Mr. Hood's lawyers also declined to elaborate on the petition, which in
addition to taking Mr. Abbott to task, called the conduct of "the current
District Attorney and his minions … troubling."

"Their actions have been marked by overzealousness that calls into
question their adherence to their duty that justice shall be done,'" the
petition said.

John Rolater, the assistant district attorney for Collin County who fought
to avoid the deposition of Judge Holland and Mr. O'Connell, declined to
comment on the petition, citing pending litigation.

"Matters like this should be resolved in the court, not in sound bites,"
he said.

(source: Dallas Morning News)