By: Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John T. Floyd and Mr. Billy Sinclair
Would you want a Judge presiding over a criminal case against you sleeping with the District Attorney prosecuting that case?
Didn’t think so. Most people wouldn’t. You expect a Judge to be neutral, free of the slightest appearance of impropriety. You expect a District Attorney to be zealous, honest, and even-handed in the prosecution of criminal cases. Those general expectations – what the State Bar calls the rules of ethical conduct – are compromised when a District Attorney prosecutes a case before a Judge with whom the District Attorney is having a sexual liaison.
That controversial issue has become a highly-publicized feature in the capital murder case of Charles Dean Hood. Attorneys working to save Hood from lethal injection charged, and ultimately proved, that 19 years ago when the condemned inmate was tried and convicted in a Collin County District Court, former District Attorney Tom O’Connell, who prosecuted Hood, was reportedly having a romantic affair the former trial judge, Verla Sue Holland, who presided over the trial.
Hood was scheduled for execution on September 10, 2008, but the day before the execution was to be carried out, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a reprieve in the case. The appeals court, on which Holland had previously served as a judge, ducked the sexual liaison issue involving Holland and O’Connell and instead issued the reprieve on what the court said were “developments in the law regarding (jury) nullification instructions.”
The appeals court had previously rejected this same jury instruction issue in Hood’s case but said it was now “prudent to reconsider the decision we [previously] issued.”
“Judicial ducking” is not an uncommon practice by courts across the nation, including the United States Supreme Court. When faced with a highly-charged public issue that has far-reaching legal ramifications, judges will frequently forego dealing with that issue by finding a lesser controversial issue in the case upon which to hang their decision – either for or against the case.
That appears to the case with the Hood reprieve. Although the appeals court had previously rejected the jury instruction issue, the court resurrected it in the middle of the Holland/O’Connell affair. The court’s latest ruling goes to the issue of punishment, leaving Hood’s capital murder conviction intact. This ruling will probably result in Hood’s death sentence being vacated and a life sentence substituted in its place. This, of course, does not please Hood’s attorneys who feel their client should have been granted a new trial because of the Holland/O’Connell affair.
The former judge and district attorney both admitted under oath while being deposed by Hood’s attorneys on September 8-9, 2008 that they had been involved in a sexual liaison, although they had different recollections as to when they cut off the sexual intimacy in the relationship.
“The intimate sexual relationship between the judge and the district attorney began several years prior to the trial of Mr. Hood,” said one of Hood’s lawyers, Greg Wiercinch, in a letter to Gov. Rick Perry seeking a reprieve. “While Mr. O’Connell and Judge Holland have different recollections as to when the affair ceased containing a sexual component, there is no doubt that the relationship was sexual in the year immediately leading up to the time that Judge Holland had jurisdiction over the case.”
Wiercinch, an attorney with the Texas Defender Service which has spearheaded the effort to save Hood’s life, was not pleased by the admission.
“[Judge Holland] never disclosed it to a single litigant or lawyer who appeared before her, and she never recused herself from hearing a single case because of her affair with the elected district attorney,” Wiercinch informed the governor. “Similarly, Mr. O’Connell never disclosed the romantic relationship to any of his adversaries nor did he recuse himself or his office from prosecuting a single case because of his affair with Judge Holland.”
Charles Dean Hood has managed six times to avoid a date with the executioner since being sentenced to death in 1990 – the latest reprieve, two stays issued in June 2008, one in 2005, one in 1999, and another in 1994. Hood was convicted for the murders of two friends in Plano, Texas on November 1, 1989. In 2002 Hood started writing letters to Michael Hall, the Senior Editor of Texas Monthly Magazine. Hall’s published three of Hood’s letters in the September 2008 edition of the magazine in which the condemned inmate described the two decades he has spent on death row.
First, what’s was Hood’s reaction to the Holland/O’Connell controversy swirling around his case? In a June 14, 2008 letter to Hall, he wrote:
“Dear Mike – How are you doing? I hope things are going well on your end. What did I tell you, shit was gonna hit the fan on the Judge&DA [sic] issue. It’s all over the news and papers yesterday.”
In one letter to Hall (dubbed by Hood as “Chapter One”), he described his first nine years on death row at the Ellis Unit. It was indeed a lax environment for a death row – work privileges, yard privileges that included sports tournaments, camaraderie among the inmates, good commissary privileges, a lot of pen pal relationships with women on the outside, and frequent opportunities to have sex with female guards who supervised the unit.
Then the Death Row Seven tried to escape in November 1998 – and in the wake of harsh statewide reaction and worldwide media attention generated by the escape attempt, life on death row in the State of Texas changed dramatically. A new maximum security death row was created at the Terrell Unit, a modern prison opened in 1993. The prison had been named after Charles Terrell, a former chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. The prison, however, was forced to change its name to the Polunsky Unit in 2001 after Terrell expressed concern to the Dallas Morning News about his name being associated with the state’s death row. Former Texas Board of Criminal Justice Allan B. Polunsky didn’t have any qualms about his name being associated with death row so he was given the official prize of having the prison named after him.
Hood’s “Chapter Two” Polunksy death row letter was not as adoring as his previous Ellis death row letter.
“ … Here you are locked down 22 hours each day. You are allowed on your scheduled days to go to the dayroom or outside rec [sic] yard. Dayroom consists of table, pull up bar, toilet&sink [sic], and mat to exercise on. That’s it! Outside rec [sic] yard consists of basketball goal, pull up bar, sink & urinal. Picture a small cage with glass on one side surrounded by two walls and then bars. All it is missing is a rope with tire hanging from the ceiling. It would look like a cage at the zoo for gorillas. If a dog was locked in it, a thousand people would be protesting out front of the unit yelling cruel * unusual punishment.”
Hood obviously has not spent much time on self-education during his two decades on death row. His self-centered descriptions of death row life reflect as much. In the first place, gorillas and dogs do not typically engage in the kind of criminal behavior for which he stands convicted. The following paragraph by Michael Hall describes Hood’s criminal behavior:
“Hood was convicted in 1990 of murdering Tracie Lynn Wallace and Ron Williamson in Plano on November 1, 1989. It was a grisly crime. Hood had been a housemate of the couple’s, and on that day, Williamson came home for lunch and found a note from Wallace saying she had gone for a walk. Bur the note was signed ‘Tracy’ rather than ‘Tracie.’ And Williamson’s safe was open. Williamson called 911 and told the operator that he feared Wallace had been abducted. ‘There’s a lot of things that just don’t add up,’ he said. He was heard talking to another man in the background, a man later confirmed to be Hood. When the police showed up four minutes later, they discovered Williamson shot through the head and Wallace wrapped in two garbage bags and stuffed in a water heater closet (she had also been shot in the head). Hood was gone, and Williamson’s watch and some jewelry were missing. Hood’s fingerprints were found were found on the note and the garbage bags. He had also left bloody prints on a weight machine jammed against the door to the water heater closet. The next day he was arrested in Vincennes, Indiana driving Williamson’s Cadillac. He was wearing Williamson’s watch and had Williamson’s credit cards, which he had used to send several dozen roses—to his mother, to a girlfriend, and to the girlfriend’s co-workers. He has also pawned a ring of Williamson’s in Lewisville, Texas, and cashed a payroll check from Williamson’s software company, MicroSpec.”
Possessing the ability to carry out such a crime, it is of little wonder that Hood would prefer being back on death row at the Ellis Unit where condemned life was “easy” (although “hot in the summer” as he wrote) compared to the harsh “super-max” environment he now endures at the Polunsky Unit. But this chronic whiner, as manifested by his Texas Monthly letters, needs to get a grip on the real world. While his “case” may have caused the proverbial crap to hit the fan with the Holland/O’Connell affair, he still faces a death sentence and probably a number of more years in the Polunsky Unit.
The Hood case is ugly, all the way around. His crimes vexes the conscience of people who oppose the death penalty while his convictions troubles the legal community because they are tainted by the actions of two public officials who placed sexual passion before common sense. Perhaps by ducking the Holland/O’Connell liaison issue, the legal system will seize the opportunity to resolve the case by vacating the death sentence and imposing a life sentence.