23 September 2009

Texas Criminal Justice Still Broken

If anyone had any doubt that the Texas justice system operates in a parallel universe, look no further than the latest decision by the state's highest court in the case of death-row inmate Charles Dean Hood. On Wednesday the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) said it wasn't interested in examining whether there was a conflict of interest in Hood's 1990 trial simply because District Attorney Thomas S. O'Connell Jr., Hood's prosecutor, had had a long-term sexual relationship with presiding Judge Verla Sue Holland, an affair the two tried to hide for 20 years.

From here.

These things happen. Something similar happened in Colorado. But, there were consequences, and the only case where a defendant was negatively impacted by this relationship was not a very serious one.

Justice Grafton Biddle and Deputy DA Laurie Hurst (a.k.a. Lauri Steinman) were having an affair in 2006 in Douglas County, Colorado. The Judge and DA did not disclose the relationship in a case that resulted in a DUI conviction. When caught less than a year later, the Judge resigned and the deputy DA was fired (a case where controversial 18th Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers exhibited clear good judgment). In April 2007, a few months after the story broke, an official attorney discipline complaint was filed against each of them. By year end, the attorney discipline system suspended Bibble's law license for three years. In the case of the prosecutor:

Laurie Hurst, 29, admitted misconduct and agreed to a three-year suspension, with the understanding she would serve only serve six months with the rest of the suspension stayed upon successful completion of 2 1/2 years of probation, according to documents submitted Thursday to the Colorado Supreme Court's Presiding Disciplinary Judge William Lucero.

It isn't easy to determine what happened to the man convicted of DUI in Colorado by this duo. As a misdemeanor case, the appeal would have been to the court of general jurisdiction in Douglas County, rather than the Court of Appeals. It is also possible that the conviction was withdrawn in the trial court. Neither of these results are easy to determine because court decisions aren't published, although they are a matter of public record. It is also possible that the DUI defendant wasn't bothered to do anything, having probably served most of his sentence before the news of the affair was out; a retrial probably wouldn't have offered him much of a benefit.

The other person tried by this duo in Colorado had no complaints. He was acquitted.

But, it is hard to imagine such a problem being considered a harmless error in a contested Colorado death penalty case, as the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals did in a 6-3 decision. This would be a good case for U.S. Supreme Court intervention.

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