A trial untainted by kiss of death

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A trial untainted by kiss of death

Post  Jennie on Mon Jun 23, 2008 11:06 pm

A trial untainted by kiss of death


Tracie Lynn Wallace, 26, and Ronald Williamson, 46, were shot to death in the home they shared in Plano in 1989. 19 years later, the man convicted of killing them is still on death row and at the center of a case in which the Texas judicial system is now on trial.

When Charles Hood, a former nightclub bouncer, was convicted of killing the couple, the case received little notice outside of Collin County, north of Dallas. Now, allegations that the judge who presided over the case and the district attorney who prosecuted Hood were involved in a romantic affair at the time of the trial once again cast the Texas justice system in a negative light. Though the evidence in the case points to Hood’s guilt, the larger question of whether he received a fair trial is troubling. It is a question that must be answered.

Hood received a 30-day stay of execution last week after a wild night of legal maneuvering that kept Hood alive - not because it was justice but because the executioner's clock ran out. As prosecutors and Hood’s appellate lawyers wrestled, the Court of Criminal Appeals went frantic in an effort to make sure Hood was executed on Tuesday, as scheduled.

Citing insufficient time to prepare as the legal wrangling dragged on, prison officials called off the execution just before midnight.

Though there are plenty of nuances to this case and certainly plenty of salacious distraction, it really all boils down to whether Hood's trial was a fair one.

Verla Sue Holland, the judge who presided over the trial, and Tom O’Connell, then the Collin County district attorney, were believed to be involved romantically before and during the trial. Both were single. Hood's attorneys presented a last-minute affidavit from a former Collin County assistant district attorney who characterized the Holland-O'Connell relationship as "common knowledge."

Anyone familiar with office gossip knows how thin "common knowledge" can be. Yet, with a man’s life at stake, the issue demands resolution. Holland - a former judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals - and O'Connell aren't talking. A court could compel them to answer questions, but Holland's former colleagues on the Court of Criminal Appeals were reluctant to do that. Instead, they hid behind procedural issues and chided the defense lawyers for raising the 11th-hour allegation of an affair.

That's significant because there are rules and time lines that govern raising issues on appeal. As we have noted, however, appeals courts shouldn't hunker down in a valley of procedural technicalities and lock out a real, imperfect and occasionally sordid world.

No doubt, answering questions about a supposed romance long ago will prove embarrassing to Holland and O'Connell, who are no longer in public office. But a man's life is at stake here.

Indeed, this is an issue that is larger than whether Hood is guilty or innocent.

The credibility of a state that always seems so eager to impose the death penalty is very much on the line. The process that leads to the ultimate sanction should be above reproach. That starts with the fundamental right to a fair and impartial trial.

The questions raised in this troubling case deserve answers.

(source: Editorial, Austin American-Statesman)
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Jennie
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