The Exonerated Strike Back

Part of the horror of what happened to Suzanne Wooten is the realization that if the justice system failed so miserably for her, it could happen to anyone.

by Lady Justice

On March 4, 2008, Suzanne Wooten, defeated Judge Charles Sandoval in the Republican primary election for the 380th District Court Judge in Collin County, Texas. In the history of Collin County, Texas, an incumbent district judge had not been challenged for re-election until Suzanne Wooten won the primary by a landslide. The following day, Judge Sandoval went to the Collin County District Attorney’s Office to complain about Suzanne Wooten. Judge Sandoval felt there was no way Suzanne Wooten could have won the Republican primary election without cheating, insinuating that they needed to find a crime.

In 2009 Suzanne Wooten took the bench for the first time, after a hard fought campaign. The following year Collin County District Attorney saw Judge Wooten indicted on six (6) counts of bribery and one (1) count of organized criminal activity.  

Three other individuals were also charged:  Judge Wooten’s campaign manager James Stephen Spencer along with David Cary and his wife, Stacy Stine Cary, also faced the same allegations of bribery and organized criminal activity.

After the election, Collin County District Attorney John Roach pushed to indict Wooten on charges related to $150,000 received by her campaign manager, James Stephen Spencer. The money came from Stacy and David Cary. Prosecutors alleged that the Carys financed Wooten’s campaign in exchange for favorable rulings from the judge in a contentious custody case between David Cary and his ex-wife. Previous rulings in the case, made by Sandoval, did not go Cary’s way.

The indictments claim that Mr. and Mrs. Cary forked over around $150,000 to campaign manager Spencer — and they didn’t do this just to help her win the election.  Allegedly the Carys additionally slid that large amount of cash across the table (purportedly in a series of six payments – the indictment gives dates and amounts) so they would get favorable rulings from Judge Wooten after she took the bench. 

James Stephen Spencer said the couple paid him for unrelated consulting work. The Cary’s stated they had never heard of Suzanne Wooten nor had she heard of them.

In May 2017, nearly five years after a Collin County jury found her guilty of taking bribes, Suzanne Wooten walked out of the Collin County Courthouse an innocent woman.

Judge Andrea Thompson officially acquitted Wooten of nine charges stemming from her bruising 2008 Republican primary campaign against three-term incumbent Judge Charles Sandoval. She now has no criminal record.

Wooten, talking to reporters after Wednesday’s hearing, said her exoneration is bittersweet.

“This has been amazing and wonderful in a way. But it’s as wonderful as being the survivor and being maimed in a plane crash. It’s really hard to have joyous feelings and not put your anger aside as well,” she said.

Collin County juries convicted both of the Carys, Spencer and Wooten. Stacy Cary was sentenced to 30 days in jail a term she never served due to it being stayed during her appeal; her husband, David, did 19 months in prison; and Spencer served 100 days in Collin County Jail and was placed on 10 years probation. In order to avoid jail time, Wooten gave up the right to appeal her conviction, which forced her to resign her spot on the bench and give up her law license.

In the years that followed the convictions, questions emerged about the process that led to them. As many as six grand juries heard evidence against Wooten, the Carys and Spencer before deciding to indict the four, and no clear link was ever established between the cash and Wooten’s campaign. Cary deposited cash into Spencer’s account, and Spencer used money from personal accounts to pay for ads and other campaign expenses for Wooten, but Wooten repaid Spencer for those expenses with campaign contributions. Throughout their trials, the Carys maintained that Wooten was a stranger.

In 2015, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, vacated the Carys’ convictions, ruling that there was not sufficient evidence presented at trial to find the couple guilty. The state of Texas appealed that ruling, delaying the Carys final exoneration until January 2017

In the wake of that decision, Wooten’s longtime attorney, Dallas’ Pete Schulte, filed writ of innocence proceedings on Wooten’s behalf with the Court of Criminal Appeals. He pointed out that prosecutors never proved there was an agreement between Wooten and the Carys, nor could they show any rulings Wooten made that could’ve be influenced by the cash.

The court agreed with Schulte, finding that Wooten’s conviction “should be vacated, and a judgment of acquittal rendered,” on all nine counts for which she was convicted.

In May 2018 a federal civil suit was filed by Suzanne H. Wooten in the latest move in a years-long dispute mired in politics, improprieties and legal maneuverings.

Wooten claims not only that her constitutional rights were violated but also that the charges against her were part of a larger “pattern of abuse of power and malicious prosecution for political gain” plaguing the Collin County district attorney’s office at that time.

Named as defendants are former Collin County District Attorney John Roach Sr., Gov. Greg Abbott, who was the Texas attorney general at the time, former Collin County Assistant District Attorney Christopher Milner and Harry E. White, who prosecuted the Wooten case for the AG’s office and is now in private practice.

The four men are named in their individual capacity only, not as elected officials or public employees.

Suzanne Wooten’s lawsuit lists as defendants (from left) former Collin County District Attorney John Roach Sr., former Collin County Assistant District Attorney Christopher Milner, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who was Texas attorney general at the time, and Harry White, who prosecuted the case for the AG’s office. It also lists Collin County.

The suit also lists Collin County as a defendant, alleging “widespread practices so well settled as to constitute de facto policy.”

Collin County officials said Thursday that they do not comment on pending litigation. White also declined to comment.

Roach, who retired in 2010 after eight years as the Collin County district attorney, could not be reached. Neither could Milner.

Abbott served three terms as Texas attorney general before being elected governor in 2014. The Republican governor is seeking re-election and will face Democrat Lupe Valdez in November. His office did not respond to requests for comment.

ABUSE OF POWER

Scott H. Palmer, who is representing Wooten, said in a prepared statement Thursday that the suit is meant “to ensure accountability at all levels of the criminal justice system and to promote respect for the law.”

“This lawsuit will expose the truth: that both the Collin County District Attorney and the Attorney General, using their hand-picked assistants, misused their authority for a political and personal vendetta against Judge Wooten,” he stated. “This abuse of power caused a manifest miscarriage of justice that demands that their actions be exposed and fully addressed so this can never happen again.” 

Wooten’s suit requests a jury trial and seeks compensatory as well as punitive damages and other relief related to mental anguish, lost wages and diminished earning capacity.

Wooten, 50, was convicted by a jury in 2011 on six counts of bribery, one count of conspiracy to commit engaging in organized criminal activity, one count of money laundering and one count of tampering with a government record with intent to defraud or harm.

She was sentenced to 10 years’ probation, fined $10,000 and ordered to do more than 1,000 hours of community service. As part of her conviction, she was forced to resign from the bench and had her law license suspended for 10 years.

On May 24, 2017, she was formally acquitted of all charges and declared innocent.

But the damage to her career, her finances and her personal life had already been done.

Campaign finance reports showed Wooten paid for all of the expenses related to her campaign using donations and personal funds.

There was no evidence Wooten ever received money from the Carys. Wooten said she had never heard of them.

Her suit claims the defendants “conspired to wrongfully obtain an indictment and prosecute plaintiff by inventing and perverting law, misleading judges and juries and taking apart plaintiff’s life and career one piece at a time.”

Criminal cases are typically investigated by a law enforcement agency and then forwarded to the DA’s office for prosecution. But with Milner’s hiring, the district attorney’s office began investigating cases without any involvement of law enforcement, Wooten’s suit alleges.

In 2011, before Wooten’s trial began, District Attorney Greg Willis called for the removal of the attorney general’s office from the case. He said the prosecution was “cloaked in the appearance of impropriety.” The AG’s office called Willis’ allegations baseless and lacking legal merit.

Wooten was tried and convicted first. The Carys were convicted by separate juries based on the same evidence in Wooten’s case. Their convictions were overturned after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled there was insufficient evidence to support the bribery and money laundering convictions.

Spencer, the campaign manager, pleaded guilty in 2013 to three felony charges in exchange for probation for his role in the case.

‘Not playing ball’

Wooten’s suit alleges she was targeted “for not playing ball with the powers that be.” It cites “pressuring of witnesses, destruction of evidence and a clear misuse and abuse of the grand jury process.”

At least five grand juries were used to subpoena records and witnesses to gather evidence before Wooten was indicted.

In 2009, one grand jury sent a letter to the presiding judge, stating it thought the Wooten case “was unnecessary, a waste of taxpayer dollars and that no crime had been committed,” the suit states.

Wooten’s suit states her prosecution wasn’t the only example of wrongful conduct.

“It was widely known in the legal community that the [Collin County district attorney’s office] had a Special Crimes Division headed by Defendant Milner who used heavy-handed tactics and strategies to investigate, intimidate and often indict those who were his enemies,” according to the suit.

The suit cites an investigation into then-County Court at Law Judge Greg Willis in 2010 while he was a candidate for district attorney.

Indictments were obtained but later thrown out against then-Denton County Sheriff and retired Texas Ranger, Weldon Lucas, then-Dallas County Sheriff Jim Bowles and then-Dallas County Jail commissary vendor Jack Madera.

Also, two unnamed defense attorneys were indicted on charges of tampering with a government record, the suit states. Those indictments also were dropped.

The district judge who tossed the case against Bowles ruled in 2004 that prosecutors overreached when they obtained an indictment for an action that was not a crime.

In 2005, after the indictments against Madera were dropped, his attorney complained about a strategy in which Collin County prosecutors “indict these people, ruin their lives and then worry about whether we can prove it or not.”

No crime committed

David Cary served 19 months in prison before he and his wife were cleared of all charges in December 2016. Those rulings paved the way for Wooten to seek a declaration of innocence.

Last year, in a courtroom packed with supporters, the judge found that the evidence in Wooten’s case was legally insufficient and that the allegations “even if true, were not crimes under Texas law.”

Wooten’s federal suit alleges that the defendants knew she had committed no crime but had intentionally misrepresented the law and facts to secure her conviction.

It alleges those actions were part of a pattern in Collin County that was allowed “to exist and thrive because the policymaker(s) with authority over the same exhibited deliberate indifference to the problem, thereby effectively ratifying it.”

SUZANNE H. WOOTEN § § Plaintiff, § § vs. § CIVIL ACTION NO. ________ § JOHN ROACH, SR., CHRISTOPHER MILNER§ COLLIN COUNTY, TEXAS, GREGORY § ABBOTT, AND HARRY EUGENE WHITE § § Defendants.

Original-complaint-filed-by-Suzanne-H-Wooten