Texas Woman Subjected to Prosecutorial Misconduct Will Seek Further Appellate Review

Erma Wilson is one of hundreds of criminal defendants convicted with a prosecutor simultaneously working for the judge on her case.

Phillip Suderman · December 14, 2023

For nearly two decades, Midland County, Texas employed Ralph Petty as both a prosecutor and the righthand advisor to the judges hearing his own criminal cases. Erma Wilson is one of hundreds of people whose prosecutions were impacted by that clear conflict of interest—resulting in a false drug conviction that upended her lifelong dream of becoming a registered nurse. But when she sued, seeking accountability under the federal civil rights statute, her case was dismissed under an outdated precedent of the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Today, a three-judge panel of that court held that it remains bound by that precedent, but that the judges are “unconvinced” by its reasoning, which forecloses meritorious constitutional claims but can only be overturned by a full, en banc panel of that court or by the Supreme Court. Wilson, represented by the Institute for Justice, will now seek en banc review.

All three federal judges recognized that “Petty’s dodgy side hustle” as a law clerk to the very same state judges presiding over his criminal prosecutions “flattened Wilson’s constitutional guarantee of a fair trial.” But they held that because Wilson has an outstanding criminal conviction arising from that unjust prosecution, she cannot challenge the “bonkers” violation of her rights via Section 1983, the federal civil rights statute.

“Three judges here unanimously agreed that what happened to Ms. Wilson was an egregious constitutional violation,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “We understand they felt their hands were tied by precedent, but we look forward to the full Fifth Circuit taking up the issue and ensuring that Ms. Wilson and other victims of prosecutorial misconduct can have their day in court.”

The panel was compelled to reach its conclusion under binding Fifth Circuit precedent, which requires people with unconstitutional convictions to unwind them before suing, “even if it’s practically impossible for them to do so.” That rule conflicts with the majority of federal appellate jurisdictions, which only apply it to incarcerated individuals who have an alternative path to vindicating their rights via habeas corpus. Non-prisoners like Ms. Wilson do not have that option, so foreclosing Section 1983 lawsuits leaves them wholly unvindicated. The judges hearing her case expressed their displeasure with the Fifth Circuit’s rule, noting that “this disturbing case … underscores that the American legal system regularly leaves constitutional wrongs unrighted.”

As noted by the panel, “examples abound of non-prisoners with facially meritorious constitutional claims denied their day in court, including Erma Wilson.” Wilson “has suffered the fallout of a criminal justice system that offended the gravest notions of fundamental fairness. She seeks accountability for unconstitutional wrongdoing that upended her life.”

“The judges recognize that what happened to me was unfair, unconstitutional, and ruined my dreams,” said Wilson. “I’m hopeful that the full court will hear my case and reverse the rule that keeps me and so many other people from vindicating our constitutional rights.”