Criminal Justice

Top Texas court tosses capital conviction because prosecutor was also clerking for the judge

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The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted a new trial to a death row inmate because one of the prosecutors was also clerking for the judge who oversaw the trial and considered the convicted man’s habeas application.

The court overturned the conviction of Clinton Lee Young in a Sept. 22 opinion, report the Texas Tribune and the Midland Reporter-Telegram.

Young was sentenced to death in April 2003; he had contended that a car-theft accomplice committed the murder, while he was sleeping off a methamphetamine high.

The moonlighting prosecutor, Weldon Ralph Petty, had clerked for Midland County, Texas, district court judges on habeas cases from 2001 to 2014 and again in 2017 and 2018.

As a habeas clerk, Petty reviewed habeas applications, performed research, and submitted recommendations and proposed orders to the judges with findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Petty was advising prosecutors and drafting motions for them in Young’s trial, held before Judge John Hyde, at the same time that he was being paid by Hyde for habeas work, the court said. Petty also drafted an order in his role as a clerk for Hyde recommending that the judge deny initial habeas relief in Young’s case—at the same time that Petty was opposing habeas in his role as a prosecutor.

“Judicial and prosecutorial misconduct—in the form of an undisclosed employment relationship between the trial judge and the prosecutor appearing before him—tainted [Young’s] entire proceeding from the outset,” the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said in its per curiam opinion.

Petty began working full time in the Midland County district attorney’s office in 2002. The district attorney who hired Petty knew that he was working for district court judges as did the district attorney who replaced him, according to the opinion. Other prosecutors involved in Young’s case were unaware of Petty’s multiple roles.

Midland County District Attorney Laura Nodolf, who was elected in 2016, discovered Petty’s work as a judicial clerk after his retirement, when she was in the midst of the 2019 budget process. Her office recused from Young’s case and sent notices to about 300 defendants informing them of Petty’s habeas work on their cases.

The case has been reassigned to the district attorney in Dawson County, Texas, according to the Texas Tribune.

The judge who presided in Young’s trial died in 2012, according to the Texas Tribune. The Texas Supreme Court accepted Petty’s resignation from the bar in April.

Corrected Sept. 24 at 1:33 p.m. to report that Nodolf’s office recused from Young’s case.

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