Arlington, Va.—Everybody knows your prosecutor can’t also be your judge. Everyone, that is, except for former Midland County, Texas, prosecutor Ralph Petty, his supervisor, and the county’s entire system of justice. Petty spent 20 years moonlighting as a law clerk for the same judges he argued before, effectively playing both prosecutor and judge in more than 300 cases. It is one of the most brazen and obvious examples of prosecutorial abuse in modern American history, yet Petty and the others who oversaw this miscarriage of justice have never been held personally accountable for their actions in a court of law. With a lawsuit it filed on April 11, 2022, the Institute for Justice seeks to change that.
“Allowing Petty to serve as a law clerk—a right-hand advisor—for judges in his own cases eviscerated the line between prosecutor and judge; it gave Petty the ability to surreptitiously shape judicial thinking, draft rulings in his favor, gain access to confidential defense materials, and earn over $250,000 in the process,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Alexa Gervasi. “In other words, Petty was essentially the de facto judge for those he prosecuted and in cases where his primary employer—the District Attorney’s Office—was a party. This was a clear, indisputable conflict of interest.”
As Institute for Justice client and former Midland County resident Erma Wilson explained, she was wrongfully convicted of possessing crack cocaine in 2000. Like so many others, she had no idea about Petty’s conflict of interest, which secretly rigged the system against her. Keeping her faith in a system she expected to be fair and impartial, Erma rejected every plea deal she was offered and took her case to trial, where Petty worked behind the scenes as a law clerk to the judge overseeing her case. Erma was ultimately convicted and received an eight-year suspended sentence.
Twenty years later, this injustice still haunts Erma. Because her conviction resulted in a felony record, she cannot pursue her life-long dream of becoming a nurse in Texas, which denies licenses to those convicted of certain crimes, including drug related offenses.
“All I want now is to hold Petty and Midland County’s entire judicial system accountable, so other prosecutors will think twice before violating the people’s rights,” Erma said. “There is nothing that can be done to give me back the past 20 years of my life or my missed nursing career, but I can ensure that similar violations don’t happen to others.”
“Erma’s case highlights three problems with today’s justice system that are all too common,” explained Institute for Justice Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “Those entrusted to enforce the law are supposed to be accountable, transparent and impartial. Erma received none of these protections. And her case is not isolated. Similar examples of prosecutorial abuse of power have been documented across the nation; the difference here is that through our federal lawsuit, we seek to hold former prosecutor Petty and the entire system in Midland County that enabled him accountable.”
Through Petty’s misconduct alone, hundreds were denied their rights to due process, and in at least one case, this conflict of interest nearly cost a man his life. Clinton Young was wrongly convicted of capital murder in 2003 and sentenced to death. After spending 17 years on death row and in solitary confinement, the current District Attorney for Midland County revealed that Petty had worked on both sides of Clint’s case. In fact, Petty argued numerous consequential motions on the prosecution’s behalf, and then turned around and wrote the judge’s order ruling in the prosecution’s favor. In September 2021, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals—Texas’ highest court on criminal matters—reversed Clint’s conviction.
Examples of other prosecutors escaping liability are ubiquitous in the United States. For example, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that a group of nurses could not sue Suffolk County prosecutors who hid evidence and engaged in other misconduct as a political favor. Similarly, a Maryland court held in 2021 that a prosecutor could not be held personally accountable for withholding lab test results proving that a man jailed for allegedly flying with methamphetamines was in fact carrying only honey, just like he said. In both cases, as in Erma’s, prosecutors withheld the truth to serve their own interests, and they were never held to account for their violations.
Midland County undeniably knew about and signed off on Petty’s dual role. In fact, the county attorney authored a memorandum expressly condoning this employment arrangement; and the county acknowledged the relationship during an IRS audit to explain why Petty received checks from multiple departments in Midland County. In other words, the official policy of Midland County was that prosecutors may serve as law clerks for the same judges they practice before and be paid for both roles.
Even though the due process violation that occurred here was obvious, various immunity doctrines shield governments and their employees from liability. This infographic prepared by the Institute for Justice demonstrates how difficult it is for ordinary people to hold government officials accountable when they violate someone’s constitutional rights. Through this lawsuit, the Institute for Justice and Erma seek to challenge these doctrines and demonstrate their incompatibility with the pursuit of justice, especially in such an egregious and obvious case of wrongdoing.
“IJ is the leading advocate fighting for greater accountability among government officials and against blanket immunity for those who violate the constitutional rights of others,” said Scott Bullock, president and general counsel for the Institute for Justice. “The lawsuit is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is devoted to the simple idea that government officials are not above the rules; if citizens must follow the law, then government must follow the Constitution.”
More information on the case is available at: https://ij.org/case/midland-prosecutor/.