Jamie Hallmark entered into a plea agreement in Houston County. The written agreement stated that when she showed up for sentencing, she would receive a three-year sentence unless she failed to show, at which time she would be sentenced within the “full range of punishment”—any sentence up to the maximum penalty. The maximum penalty for the charge for which she was convicted, hindering apprehension, is ten years. At the initial guilty plea proceeding, the trial judge specifically told Hallmark the risk for failure to show at sentencing:
“If you did not come, and chose not to show, then you would be looking at the full range of punishment on the third degree felony, and I would assess your range of punishment, and the plea would be off. So if you do your part, you get your deal. If you don’t, then I decide what you get.” Defense counsel did not object to the trial courts improper participation in plea negotiations.
Defendant’s Failure to Appear at Sentencing Gets Maximum Sentence
Hallmark did not show up for her January 21, 2016 sentencing hearing.
An eventual sentencing hearing was conducted in March.
In response to the judge’s question about whether she had an excuse for not showing up at sentencing in January, Hallmark said she had none. The judge then announced that she was not going to accept the plea bargain and imposed the maximum 10-year term. In effect, the trial court rejected the plea agreement when Hallmark failed to show.
The Twelfth Court of Appeals found that the trial court had the trial judge had added an additional condition at the plea proceedings concerning the consequences for failure to show at the January sentencing hearing. The appeals court then reversed Hallmark’s conviction, finding that the trial court had abused its discretion when it imposed the full range of punishment, the maximum term.
Court of Criminal Appeals Reinstates Sentence
On November 8, 2017, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the appeals court and reinstated Hallmark’s conviction, finding that: “Because the ‘no show/full-range-of-punishment’ condition was part of Appellant’s plea agreement and she forfeited any complaint about the trial judge’s participation in the plea negotiations, her complaint about the trial court’s judgment are without merit. The court of appeals was mistaken to hold otherwise.”
Texas has a history of “frontier justice”—a judicial system that created its own norms without consistency or adherence to precedent. Stanford legal historian Lawrence M. Friedman illustrated this frontier justice by pointing to an 1879 Texas case in which the conviction was upheld because the “t” was left out of the word “guilty” (read as “guily”) but seven years later, in 1886, a conviction was reversed where the “i” was left out of “guilty.”
According to Friedman, the 1886 appellate court actually tried to distinguish its ruling from the 1879 court by saying the letter “I” is more important than the letter “t” in any word—presumably because “I” comes before “T” in the alphabet.
There are roughly 3200 elected or appointed judges in the State of Texas who dispose of more than 10 million cases each year, according to a 2014 judicial report. This includes the 80 justices on the fourteen courts of appeals that have jurisdiction over the state’s 254 counties and the nine justices on the TCCA who issue approximately 460 opinions each year involving cases previously decided by the courts of appeal.
Court of Criminal Appeals Rules Contrary to Common Sense
In 2004, the Texas Monthly reported that some of TCCA opinions go “against law, science, and … [even] common sense.”
Since October 18, the TCCA has reversed the lower appellate courts at least six times, sometimes with reasoning that heralds back to the when Texas courts were trying to figure out which letter was more important in the world guilty—the “I” or the “t”.
We understand it is healthy for justice to have differences of opinions among appellate courts, but it seems that in the recent spate of cases the appellate courts in Texas are still trying to ascertain the importance between “I” and “T”.