The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday tossed the death sentence and conviction of Clinton Lee Young for a 2001 double murder after it was revealed in 2019 that the judge who presided over his criminal trial simultaneously employed one of the prosecutors in the case as his judicial clerk. A panel of judges on the state’s highest criminal court reasoned that by allowing the dual employment and failing to disclose the arrangement, the state violated Young’s due process rights to an impartial judge and a fair trial.
“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. As a result, little confidence can be placed in the fairness of the proceedings or the outcome of Applicant’s trial,” the court ruled in an unpublished 11-page order. “The evidence presented in this case supports only one legal conclusion: that Applicant was deprived of his due process rights to a fair trial and an impartial judge.”
The 38-year-old Young has been on death row since he was convicted in 2003 of murdering Doyle Douglas, 41, and Samuel Petrey, 52, to steal their vehicle in November 2001. Young, who was 18 at the time, has maintained that he was framed for the crime.
As previously reported by Law&Crime, the nature of the prosecutor’s relationship with the presiding judge in Young’s case first came to light in August 2019. Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Eric Kalenak, who was newly to Young’s post-conviction case, called Young’s lawyer with a “startling revelation” his office had just discovered regarding former Midland County Assistant District Attorney Weldon Ralph Petty, who led the state’s case against Young. Kalenak said that Petty was being paid by Midland District Court judges as a “de facto law clerk” for Judge John Hyde on cases in which he also had appeared as the prosecutor—including the Young case.
The Midland County DA’s Office immediately recused itself from Young’s case, but an investigation revealed the shocking extent of Petty’s dual role as both prosecutor and judicial clerk. Documents obtained from the Midland County Treasurer and Auditor’s Office confirmed that for approximately 17 years, Petty had “billed the trial court and other Midland Judges for tens of thousands of dollars for work as a judicial clerk, all while he was working as a prosecutor appearing in these courts, sometimes on the same cases he was working on as a judicial clerk.”
Petty refused to appear last year at an evidentiary hearing via Zoom on Young’s latest appeal concerning the alleged unethical conduct. Petty first expressed “health concerns related to possible COVID-19 exposure” and then “invoke[ed] his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination,” the court noted. Judge Hyde died in 2012 and thus could not testify.
The evidence at the hearing established that Petty was “basically the legal advisor to [the] team that was prosecuting [Young’s] case” and “probably drafted just about every single motion in that case.” He also appeared in court multiple times during the trial proceedings to argue particular legal issues.
Records showed that ADA Petty earned a total of $1,500 for legal work provided to Judge Hyde in 2003 for work on Young’s case.
It was even revealed that Petty had drafted an order for the court denying one of Young’s earliest appeals while drafting the state’s pleading in opposition to the appeal, essentially handing himself a victory in the case.
Petty later resigned from the State Bar of Texas in lieu of disciplinary action.
The court ordered Young to be removed from death row, where he was awaiting lethal injection, and remanded to the custody of the Midland Sheriff. Midland District Attorney Laura Nodolf can put Young on trial again.
Nodolf’s office did not immediately respond to an email from Law&Crime concerning Wednesday’s ruling and future of the state’s case against Young.
Read the full order below.
[image via YouTube screengrab]
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