Death penalty thrown out over sex scandal

U-turn by Texas appeals court after judge and prosecutor admit affair

The top appeals court in Texas yesterday abruptly threw out the death sentence passed two decades ago on Charles Dean Hood, whose case had only recently attracted national and even international attention because of revelations of an illicit sexual affair between the judge at his trial and the lead prosecutor.

In a split decision, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new punishment hearing for Hood, 40, who was convicted in the double killings of Tracie Lynn Wallace and Ronald Williamson in their suburban Dallas home where he was lodging in 1989. He has continued to insist upon his innocence.

The Court of Appeals in September ruled it did not see any reason to rescind the death sentence on Hood in spite of sworn admissions from both parties as to their secret liaisons and their failure to alert the defence to the fact at the time of the trial. It said Hood had taken too long to raise the matter.

That decision, however, caught the attention of legal experts countrywide. Last week a group of prominent former lawyers, judges and politicians, including a former FBI director and a former governor of Texas, petitioned the US Supreme Court to intervene in the case, arguing that the trial had evidently been tainted by its romance-novel subplot.

In its new finding, the appeals court oddly made no mention of the romantic entanglements of Judge Verla Sue Holland and the prosecutor, Thomas O'Connell. It was ordering a new hearing, it said only, because the jurors at the trial were given insufficient opportunity to consider an alternative punishment to the death sentence and cited the defendant's harsh childhood.

It seemed highly probable, however, that the growing furore over the inappropriate intimacies of the most important players at the trial – aside from the defendant himself – played some part in yesterday's reversal by the court. The Independent has been among newspapers to report on the controversy.

It was not welcome news for relatives of the victims, however, but it did not greatly surprise them either. "We gotta do what we gotta do. I want no one to come back and say he didn't get a fair trial," Tracie Wallace's sister, Julie, told the Dallas News. "It doesn't change the fact that he's guilty. There are others who have had bad upbringings or lifestyles, and they haven't murdered. This was the path he chose, and he needs to live with his decision."

Hood was just hours from being executed by lethal injection in 2008 when a former Texas district attorney came forward and swore under oath that rumours about the relationship between the judge and prosecutor at his trial were true. The two of them were then obliged to admit to the affair in legal depositions.

Most legal experts had expected the Supreme Court to take up the case. However, the volte face by the appeals court in Texas, even though it offers different reasons for a new punishment hearing, will make moot any intervention by Washington.