The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has thrown out the death sentence of a convicted killer whose case has been dogged by admissions of an affair between his trial judge and the prosecutor.
The court, in a split decision, says Charles Dean Hood is entitled to a new punishment trial because jurors were not allowed to consider mitigating evidence that could have convinced them he didn't deserve a death sentence.
Wednesday's ruling makes no mention of the affair between the judge and prosecutor in Collin County in suburban Dallas. Last year, the same court refused Hood's appeal for an entire new trial.
Hood, now 40, a former topless club bouncer, insists he's innocent of the 1989 fatal shootings of 26-year-old Tracie Lynn Wallace and 46-year-old Ronald Williamson at their Plano home.
Though it doesn't mention at all the now-admitted affair between the trial judge and prosecutor in Hood's case, this is a major decision which basically amounts to a mea culpa by the CCA majority about its past rulings in an array of similar cases. From Judge Cochran's majority opinion:
This is all very awkward. To grant a Texas death-row inmate relief on his subsequent Penry I and Penry II claim under the recently decided Tennard, Smith, et al. cases, we must find that those decisions announced new law, but the federal courts cannot grant relief on those very same claims unless they find that Texas courts misapplied clearly established law at the time of the relevant state-court decision. Hence, a death-row inmate must argue in this Court that Tennard, Smith, et al. announced new law, but, once he arrives in federal court, he must argue that those same cases simply reiterated clearly established law. There is no logical way in which Tennard, Smith, et al. can simultaneously be both "newly available law" for state-court purposes and "clearly established law" for federal-court purposes.Judge Keasler's dissent sounded downright furious at this 180 degree reversal in course. I'd suggested in this Grits post from 2008 that staying Hood's case on these grounds amounted to a near-explicit admission of error by the court, but I never expected the Texas CCA to overtly admit that they'd "completely misunderstood the scope and applicability" of a Supreme Court ruling "for almost twenty years." As I wrote back then:
This conundrum has produced starkly different descriptions and versions of the historical development of Penry law. In each of the five most recent cases, the United States Supreme Court majority has been at pains to emphasize that "well before our decision in Penry I, our cases had firmly established that sentencing juries must be able to give meaningful consideration and effect to all mitigating evidence that might provide a basis for refusing to impose the death penalty[.]" Thus, Penry itself did not announce new law, nor did the five most recent cases, Tennard, Smith I, Abdul-Kabir, Brewer, and Smith II. Under the majority's reasoning, this Court (along with the Fifth Circuit) completely misunderstood the scope and applicability of Penry for almost twenty years and reached "'decision[s] that [were] contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States'" in virtually all of our Penry cases. Had the Supreme Court concluded otherwise, it could not have granted relief to any of the habeas corpus applicants in Tennard, Smith I, Abdul-Kabir, Brewer, or Smith II.
I can think of only two possible explanations for this odd and surprising move by the court: Either the CCA egregiously erred last spring by failing to accommodate Smith v. Texas, or else the court is now using this issue as a stratagem, the way an illusionist uses misdirection, to avoid revisiting their colleague's admitted misconduct. Neither reason reflects well on the court.
Given today's developments I now think both explanations may be correct. A plurality on the CCA now believe that "Texas courts misapplied clearly established law" in Hood's case and others like it, but I also continue to suspect that judges chose to revisit the issue (and perhaps timed the release of today's opinion) to deflect heat generated by their past rulings in this case protecting their former colleague.
I've no idea what the implications of this decision might be for the recent request for the US Supreme Court to hear Hood's case, but I hope it doesn't derail efforts to get a SCOTUS ruling on the separate issues raised by the trial judge and prosecutor's long-concealed liaisons.