24 Sep Texas Prosecutor’s Misconduct Gets Murder Conviction Overturned
When you think about police misconduct, certain examples stand out more than others. Right now, that example is Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd. When you think about prosecutor misconduct, certain examples stand out, too. Maybe it’s this one or this one or this one. But, if you didn’t have one in mind before you clicked on this article, you’re about to. A Texas prosecutor’s misconduct in a capital murder case is so blatant that 1L law students would breathe sighs of relief if they saw an essay question this easy on their exam.
A jury convicted Mr. Young of murder, and he was sentenced to death in 2003.
In 2003, a Texas jury convicted Clinton Lee Young of capital murder. As one Texas law firm describes it on their website, “Capital Murder is the most serious crime in the state of Texas. It is the state’s only offense punishable by death.” So, if prosecutors are charging someone with capital murder, they want to send their best. They want to present a fool-proof case to the jury. And, if they’re lucky enough to get a conviction, they want that conviction to be air-tight on appeal. A team of Texas prosecutors, including Weldon Ralph Petty, achieved that goal in Mr. Young’s case, getting both a guilty verdict and a death sentence.
Over the next nearly 20 years, Mr. Young fought for his release. In 2005, he filed his initial post-conviction application for a writ of habeas corpus, raising 14 claims. Next, in 2006, he filed his first subsequent writ application, raising nine more claims. Then, in 2009, he filed his second subsequent writ application, raising four claims. In 2017, he filed his third subsequent application, raising eight claims. Mr. Young was unsuccessful every single one of those times. Then came his fourth subsequent habeas application on August 14, 2020. Things changed.
In that application, Mr. Young sought to have his conviction overturned based on newly discovered evidence. That newly discovered evidence? He had learned, almost two decades after his conviction, that Mr. Petty, one of the prosecutors involved in his trial and one who had continued working on the case with respect to his post-conviction habeas applications, had also been working as a judicial law clerk for the judge that presided over this trial and denied his post-conviction proceedings.
Mr. Petty was a prosecutor as well as the judge’s clerk on the case at the same time.
If you had to read that a couple of times to wrap your head around it, you’re not alone. Judge John Hyde presided over Mr. Young’s capital murder trial. To help him understand the issues in the case, he turned to his judicial clerk, Mr. Petty, who was also a prosecutor on the case.
Mr. Petty worked in both roles for years, and no one seemed to question the glaring ethical problems with a prosecutor playing for one team while also helping the referee decide what calls to make.The only reservation anyone had was whether his judiciary work would eat into his prosecutor schedule. So, officials say, he made sure to fulfill his judicial clerk duties after hours. Problem solved, Mr. Petty and Judge Hyde apparently thought.
Consequently, from 2001 to 2014 and again from 2017 to 2018, Mr. Petty worked for and was paid by Judge Hyde and several other judges for “legal work” on post-conviction applications for writs of habeas corpus. In this role, Mr. Petty would receive the applications, reviewed them and the file, perform any necessary research and submit a recommendation and proposed order to the supervising judge as to how the judge should resolve the application. Both the judges as well as the district attorney who hired Mr. Petty and the assistant district attorney at the time knew about these overlapping roles but obviously let it continue.
When a new district attorney, Laura Nodolf, was elected in 2016, she discovered Mr. Petty’s judicial employment and started an investigation. That investigation revealed that Mr. Petty had worked on numerous post-conviction applications while working as a prosecutor at the same time. Ms. Nodolf’s office sent letters to all of the defendants prosecuted by Mr. Petty, alerting them of the conflict of interest. One of the letter recipients was Mr. Young.
Mr. Petty, as a prosecutor, argued that Mr. Young’s application should be denied and recommended, as a judicial clerk, that the prosecutor’s argument prevail.
It’s worth simply quoting from the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas’s decision at this point: “The evidence at the writ hearing … establishes that, although [two other prosecutors] in [Mr. Young’s] capital murder trial, [Mr.] Petty was actively part of the prosecution team.” The decision continues: Mr. “Petty was ‘basically the legal advisor to [the] team that was prosecuting the case’ and ‘probably drafted just about every single motion in that case … that the prosecution filed.'” (Alterations in original.) In fact, Mr. Petty “also appeared in court multiple times during the trial proceedings to argue particular legal issues.
And then, unbelievably, he worked as the judicial clerk on the case, arguing that his own arguments on behalf of the prosecution should prevail. As the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas explained, the “evidence demonstrate[d] that, in his role as a prosecutor, [Mr.] Petty opposed habeas relief at the writ hearings while at the same time, in his role as a judicial clerk to Judge Hyde, he drafted the order recommending the denial of [Mr. Young’s] initial 11.071 writ application.”
Put differently, the Court explained, “[t]he undisputed evidence in the record establishes that an attorney working as a paid judicial clerk for the judge presiding over [Mr. Young’s] capital murder proceedings simultaneously represented the State against Applicant during his trial and his initial postconviction proceedings before that same judge.” As even the district attorney at the most recent writ hearing recognized, “You … can’t do both. I mean, that’s like professional responsibility 101.”
The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas granted Mr. Young relief, but it’s impossible to overstate how unethical the arrangement between Mr. Petty and Judge Hyde was.
Based on all of this evidence, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas granted Mr. Young’s request for relief and vacated his conviction and sentence. “Judicial and prosecutorial misconduct—in the form of an undisclosed employment relationship between the trial judge and the prosecutor appearing before him—tainted [the] entire proceeding from the outset,” the Court wrote. “The evidence presented in this case supports only one legal conclusion: that [Mr. Young] was deprived of his due process rights to a fair trial and an impartial judge.”
Mr. Petty, his supervisors at the district attorney’s office and Judge Hyde should have known better. The obviousness of their ethical violations are almost laughable. While not necessarily binding on low-level courts, the Code of Conduct for Law Clerks and Staff Attorneys adopted by the Texas Supreme Court illustrates just how blatantly wrong Mr. Petty’s and Judge Hyde’s conduct was. Canon 3 forbids judicial clerks “from engaging in conversation with attorneys or parties” involved in the case before them. Certainly serving as an attorney in the case before them is more egregious than talking to one.
Under Canon 4, judicial clerks also can’t “accept a gift, bequest, or favor from any person whose interests are or are likely to come before the Court.” Certainly a salary for your work for one of the parties involved in the case before the court triggers this prohibition. And, if this guidance isn’t clear enough, Canon 7 is. That canon states that “[a] law clerk or staff attorney may not assist the Court, in any manner, in” “a case in which the law clerk or staff attorney has worked, in any capacity, before working for the Court, or by virtue of former employment has gained knowledge of the facts of the case[.]”
The prosecutor and the judge faced consequences, right? Uh…
If you’re expecting Mr. Petty’s and Judge Hyde’s conduct to result in the most serious sanctions imaginable, your expectations might be too high. Judge Hyde passed away in 2012 and didn’t face a single consequence for his actions in this regard. Mr. Petty voluntarily resigned from the State Bar of Texas in lieu of disciplinary action. But it’s hard to imagine anyone reading the decision from the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas thinks a voluntary career change is an adequate consequence for these egregious actions.
Even in this case, Mr. Petty avoided acknowledging his conduct. He refused to testify at the hearing, invoking his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. But, even in invoking his Fifth Amendment right to silence, Mr. Petty tried to pass the blame, citing health concerns related to possible COVID-19 exposure as a reason why he couldn’t testify.
This made headlines at the same time as the judiciary is publicly praising itself.
The timing of the decision in Mr. Young’s case is, at a minimum, ironic. Over the past couple of weeks, justices on the United States Supreme Court have gone public in their efforts to convince the public that the justice system remains fair and independent amid today’s hyper-partisan political warfare. These men and women—appointed by presidents and serving lifetime appointments with virtually no oversight—claim they’re not partisan, that their critics are destroying our country’s institutions and that, ultimately, the system is loyal to nothing but the rule of law.
At an event where she was introduced by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), arguably the most high-profile Republican lawmaker in the country and the Republican politician largely responsible for her seat on the Court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett took issue with the idea that the public views judges as political. “My goal today is to convince you that this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks,” she said while speaking at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, according to the Louisville Carrier Journal.
“My goal today is to convince you that this court is not … a bunch of partisan hacks.”
Right around the same time, Justice Clarence Thomas, another Republican-appointed conservative justice, leveled criticism against those recognizing the politicization of the Supreme Court. In his comments, Justice Thomas warned of critics “destroying our institutions.” He then went on to claim that “[t]he craziness during [his] confirmation hearing was one of the results of that.” According to him, the backlash he faced at the time—Anita Hill came forward with disturbing sexual-harassment allegations against him—was actually about abortion.
Even justices appointed by presidents from the Democratic Party have publicly expressed their concerns about the public viewing the judiciary as anything less than independent. In his new book, Justice Stephen Breyer claims that judges have a loyalty to justice that runs deeper than anyone else’s. “My experience from more than 30 years as a judge has shown me that anyone taking the judicial oath takes it very much to heart,” he wrote. “A judge’s loyalty is to the rule of law….”
Would Mr. Young say the same?