Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Charles Hood death sentence thrown out: Texas CCA admits it 'completely misunderstood' SCOTUS for past 20 years

Here's another astonishing development in the increasingly infamous Charles Dean Hood case: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this morning threw out Hood's death sentence (!), not because the judge and prosecutor were sleeping together (which wasn't an issue for six of them) but instead thanks to a flip flop over claims about flawed jury instructions that the court had earlier rejected. The Associated Press reports that:

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.

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.
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:
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.


ckikerintulia said...

I'm no expert on SCOTUS decisions, but I would guess they'll efuse to take the sleeping together case, saying it's no longer a relevant issue. And I will further surmise that's part of the reason CCA ruled as they did, hoping to keep SCOTUS out of it. No doubt Hood will have a new judge and a new prosecutor!

Anonymous said...

ckikerintulia, not necessarily. The CCA only voided the punishment phase of the trial, and left the guilt phase unchanged. Charles Dean Hood then still has a claim as to having a biased judge in the guilt phase of his trial.

Since CCA didn't throw out the whole trial, Hood's claim remains relevant.

Now, taking away the death sentence could convince the justices that it's not worth bothering with anymore and cert will not be granted, but I really kinda doubt that.

ckikerintulia said...

We're both guessing. Your guess may be as good as mine. We'll see.

TDCJEX said...

Call me cynical but it does sound like a CYA knowing that the high court is going to grant Hood COA and still will . Now this will hoods case ever get resolved ?. I doubt his attorneys are backing off the Holland O Connell issue it is going to help them and others . Fighting to get evidence that was hidden deliberately so defendant/ appellant could not raise it .Something to bolster Brady an give therm more ammunition.

The TX CCA seems to “misunderstand” Constitution and High court in almost every case it hears .So now how many cases will this decision effect ?

I know TX justices is a wreck first hand but this is to the point of no return.

With almost weekly scandal involving some law enforcement agency , prosecutor , “forensics expert “or lab or TDCJ a court along with the CC A
How much more does it take for the public figure to that the TX justice system is FUBAR . How far back does this disaster go? And how many cases are involved ?My guess more than 20years

Instead of some celebrities sex life of or stupid behavior The MSM could try investigating this and bringing to the public's attention.This is the end result of win at all costs. Looks like it will cost a lot and more than in dollars

Anonymous said...

Well, I find it odd that Collin County has so many heated and high issues that noone is willing to investigate convictions. This county boasts itself as privileged and pecuniary resonance but is actually dishonest and ethnically genocidal and roofed with extreme dislike and wicked error filled convictions and misapplications of the law. The dysfunction of this case should alone be evidence to place firm rules and checks and balances and prosecutory violations in place. Abuses of the law, affairs during trials, false eye witnesses, etc., are all things that we as Americans should not welcome upon judical reviews. SCOTUS should get involved with this as "misunderstandings" of the law reflect it is interpretive and leaves huge gaps for over sentencing, wrongful convictions and many more harms that could have possibly been avoided. I am no expert on SCOTUS either but I am an expert on the law turning an eye to wrongful actions of those sworn to protect and serve and those sworn to apply to the law "to the guilty" and all I have seen are gross misjustices and thoughts of entitlement and abuse by color of law. Collin County should be forensically investigated along with their convictions, especially of those of color - adult and juvenile, and it should be investigated of relationships within the judicial arena and favors that have been offered, accepted and hidden. Charles Hood should receive a new trial as it was tainted from the beginning, tainted during the middle and wronged at the end.