Texas Justice System Fails ‘Ethics 101’ in Death Penalty Case, Lawyer Says

A Texas man who has been on death row since 2003 had his conviction overturned on Wednesday due to newly uncovered evidence that the county attorney who prosecuted him was also working for the judge, effectively serving as both accuser and a decision maker in a capital murder case.

Former prosecutor Ralph Petty has even written rulings for the court in some cases.

The conflict of interest has been unfolding in Midland County, Texas for over 16 years, in hundreds of cases, and has only come into the defense stand by chance.

Wednesday’s decision concerned the case of Clinton Young, accused of participating in two shootings in 2001 when he was 18. He maintains that he was trapped.

In 2019, Midland County District Attorney Nodolf, elected in 2016, inadvertently found documents showing Petty’s dual role and notified Young’s attorneys. Two previous prosecutors were aware of the arrangement, as were the judges, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote. It continued even after the county was audited by the Internal Revenue Service in 2008 in connection with the arrangement.

A USA Today analysis in February found that Petty worked for nine judges in 355 cases involving defendants he prosecuted.

Nodolf told me that she condemned Petty’s actions, while adding that he was impartial in applying the law in all cases. There would have already been a flood of appeal cancellations had Petty consistently favored prosecutors, Nodolf said.

Petty, who was ordered to surrender her lawyer’s license in April, could not be contacted through her lawyer. A Midland County District Court official declined to comment.

Young, who remains in custody, will be taken from death row. He could still be retried, although the Midland district attorney’s office has withdrawn from the case.

Merel Pontier, a lawyer from the Netherlands, was inspired by Young’s trials to start working on death penalty cases in the United States. She is now legal director of the Clinton Young Foundation, established in 2014 to advocate for those in prison with long-term sentences or death. (Pontier is not one of Young’s attorneys on appeal.)

I spoke with her about the implications of the revelations in Young’s case and the long-standing death penalty in the United States.

The following answers have been edited for length and clarity.

REUTERS: How did you first get involved in the affair?

PONTIER: I was a law student in the Netherlands in 2014. I have always had an interest in the American justice system because it is so different, so I did an internship in New York to do legal work. white collar fraud. I saw a Dutch documentary on the death penalty in Texas when I got back, and I was like ‘Wow, this is such a different band, and if something goes wrong people lose their lives and it just doesn’t. cannot be canceled ”. It sparked my interest, so I wrote to Clinton and we developed a friendship.

I finally realized that this was the job I wanted to do – guaranteeing everyone the right to a fair trial and a good defense, especially when life is in danger. So in 2019 I moved to Texas and became a banned lawyer here, and worked on other death penalty and capital punishment cases.

REUTERS: What did you think when you heard the court overturned the conviction?

PONTIER: It’s the only right decision. No one has ever seen anything like it from what I’ve heard. There’s no real way to fix this other than quitting completely and at least trying to give it a fair trial.

REUTERS: What struck you so hard about our capital punishment system that you moved to Texas?

PONTIER: Well, sure, we don’t have the death penalty, and we don’t have some of those outrageous convictions or the number of wrongful convictions that you see in the United States.

REUTERS: What struck you about Young?

PONTIER: His case is so unique, but at the same time it’s not, because in every death penalty case I’ve seen, something has gone wrong – whether it’s a fault ineffective attorney or assistant lawyer.

I had a law professor who said to me “Merel, it’s not about whether something went wrong, it’s about what went wrong – you just have to do it. to find. So many cases are either wrongful convictions or excessive charges. My teacher was right about this.

REUTERS: It all came to light. What do you think is happening elsewhere?

PONTIER: I’m sure it happened elsewhere because it was just a coincidence that it was discovered, which is insane. I was shocked at how little public coverage and reaction we saw. How can people not find this interesting? Obviously people care more when someone is cleared, but we should be concerned about the process itself because we will continue to condemn the innocent if it is unfair.

REUTERS: What do you think this all means for Midland. How to approach the larger situation?

PONTIER: It’s scary because it’s like Ethics 101, and we don’t even have checks and balances because we thought everyone knew we shouldn’t do this.

I’m not in favor of harsh punishments, so I would be hypocritical to say let’s punish them as hard as possible. What will (deter unethical prosecutors) is take away their victories and overturn all their convictions. Showing that you will have this conviction overturned is a very good first step.

REUTERS: U.S. courts often say that the type of massive remedial work involved in systemic or pervasive misconduct is too onerous for the justice system. What are your thoughts there?

PONTIER: I wonder when we get to this point where the prosecutor’s misconduct is so egregious that we say, ‘OK, we can’t try these cases again, or (we have to look at all these cases)’, but sometimes we have to. feel like they never get that much in this country.

REUTERS: What’s next for the foundation and Young?

PONTIER: We’re just going to help Clinton get a fair trial this time. If he is released, it would be great if he joined the foundation and helped educate the public about prosecutor misconduct, solitary confinement, wrongful convictions and all those issues. There are a lot of people in the system who need help unfairly.

The views expressed here by the author are those of the author. Reuters News, under the principles of trust, is committed to respecting integrity, independence and freedom from bias.

(UPDATE: This story has been updated with comments from the Midland County District Attorney.)

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the principles of trust, is committed to respecting integrity, independence and freedom from bias.

Hassan Kanu

Hassan Kanu writes on access to justice, race and equality under the law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years working primarily on labor law. He lives in Washington, DC Reach Kanu at [email protected]

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