Texas court tosses out conviction, death sentence after discovering a prosecutor also worked for the judge

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Jan. 15, 2020.

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The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals tossed out the capital murder conviction and death sentence of Clinton Young on Wednesday after it was discovered that one of the prosecutors in his case also worked for the judge.

Young, 38, has been on death row since 2003, convicted of a Midland County murder in which he insists he was framed. But while his other appeals were pending, a new district attorney discovered that a prosecutor who worked on Young’s case worked for the judge at the same time, even drafting the court’s order to deny one of Young’s first appeals. The prosecutor has since retired and, this year, agreed to give up his license in lieu of disciplinary action.

“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,” Texas’ highest criminal court ruled. “As a result, little confidence can be placed in the fairness of the proceedings or the outcome of Applicant’s trial.”

The court ordered Young to be removed from death row and taken to the Midland County jail while prosecutors decide if they want to try him again or dismiss the charge. District Attorney Laura Nodolf said Wednesday that she had recused herself from the case after discovering the prosecutor’s actions and would not be involved in any prosecution moving forward.

“I don’t want there to be any appearance of a conflict,” she said.

Dawson County District Attorney Philip Furlow, to whom the case was reassigned in 2019, was not available for comment Wednesday.

In 2019, Nodolf discovered during a budgeting process that Weldon Petty, who had retired earlier that year, worked more than a decade as a full-time prosecutor for the county while moonlighting for the district judges. As a prosecutor, the court stated, Petty opposed defense motions. At the same time, he drafted recommendations of denial for the judges to sign.

At age 18, Young was accused of taking part in a 2001 drug-related crime spree that involved fatally shooting two men and stealing their cars on opposite ends of the state with a 20-year-old man, David Page. Young was convicted in the Midland murder of Samuel Petrey and sentenced to death after Page testified against him.

At trial, Page said Young shot Petrey, but Young has said he was sleeping off a methamphetamine high when the man was killed. Page took a plea deal and was given 30 years in prison on an aggravated kidnapping conviction.

At Young’s trial, Petty worked as a legal adviser to the prosecution team and wrote almost all of the motions, according to findings from an evidentiary hearing in the trial court last year. The judge who presided over Young’s case died in 2012.

Later, Petty helped prosecutors contest appeals of Young’s conviction, while also being paid by the judge for legal work on Young’s case, the court said.

“You ... [can] either be an impartial person that the judges are consulting, or you [can] be ... an advocate with the District Attorney’s Office,” said Erik Kalenak, the prosecutor in charge of Young’s appeals, at the hearing in 2020. “I mean, that’s like professional responsibility 101.”

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