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Opinion She dreamed of becoming a nurse, but then ran afoul of a Texas court

(Grzegorz Knec/Alamy Stock Photo)
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On a recent morning in Austin, the resilient Erma Wilson, 45, dressed in her certified nursing assistant’s gear, was heading for her job, which she likes. It is not, however, the job she has aspired to for 36 years, since at age 9 she decided she wanted to become a registered nurse. That dream died because of her felony conviction in Midland, Tex., where she grew up and had an astonishing encounter with the criminal justice system.

Speaking by Zoom, Wilson recalls that in August 2000 she and some girlfriends were hanging out in the Flats, a bars-and-restaurants concentration where young people gathered. A police officer beckoned her to approach his patrol car. When she asked why, he replied, “Just bring your ass here.” She says, “I just started backpedaling, then I ran.” She was wrong to run but right to be wary.

Because she fled, Wilson was handcuffed, placed in the patrol car and told that crack cocaine had been found on the ground — not an unprecedented event in the Flats — near where she had been standing. She truthfully said it was not hers; they said they would release her if she told them who the crack belonged to; she said she did not know; they charged Wilson with possession of a controlled substance. Wilson was offered various plea bargains if she would plead guilty to possession of a controlled substance. She refused, putting her trust in the justice system.

At her trial, the police admitted that they never saw Wilson possess crack or drug paraphernalia, and that she did not appear under the influence of drugs. But the trial, in which Midland Assistant District Attorney Weldon “Ralph” Petty Jr. likely advised his fellow prosecutors who were working the case, included judicial rulings adverse to Wilson. She was convicted of possession of a controlled substance. Petty allegedly drafted the judge’s final judgment and sentencing order.

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As a first-time offender, Wilson was sentenced to eight years of probation. And, effectively, to decades of disappointment: Texas denies registered nursing licenses to people convicted of drug-related offenses.

She did not know — few did until recently, and the few evidently did not think it important — that Petty was multitasking. He was a sort of utility infielder, like those who can play several positions in baseball. Except Petty was playing for two teams simultaneously — for Midland’s prosecutors, of whom he was one, and for the judges, for whom he worked as a paid law clerk.

For nearly 20 years, the Institute for Justice says, prosecutor Petty routinely engaged in highly improper communications and collaborations with judges, for whom he drafted opinions and orders favoring the prosecution in more than 300 cases. In these, defendants were denied their constitutional (14th Amendment) due process rights. One defendant, convicted in 2003 of capital murder in a Petty-tainted trial, spent 17 years in solitary confinement on death row until last September, when Texas’s Court of Criminal Appeals freed him because of Petty’s dual role.

Wilson is suing Petty and Albert Schorre Jr., the district attorney who hired him and who knew, but never disclosed to the defendants or their lawyers, the fact that Petty was advising judges on, and writing rulings on, his motions before them.

Amazingly, his behavior was not surreptitious: Petty’s employment contract with Midland’s district attorney’s office stipulated that he could “continue the performance of legal services” for the district judges, and he sent invoices for his work to the district courts.

The Wild West willingness of some Midland officials to ignore some elementary judicial norms is inexplicable. Something gave them a sense of impunity. This sense began to unravel when an Internal Revenue Service auditor wondered about Petty’s financial relationships with two supposedly independent branches of Midland County’s criminal justice system. But the misbehavior was not publicly disclosed until after Petty retired in 2019. He is no longer allowed to practice law in the state of Texas.

Wilson, represented by the Institute for Justice, hopes to penetrate the shield of immunity that protects prosecutors from paying financial damages when they violate defendants’ constitutional rights. Violations are frequent nationwide; redress is rare.

Wilson hopes her conviction will be expunged. Then, “I am immediately signing up for [nursing] school. I am so ready.” Her experience is a timely reminder that the Supreme Court is not the only court that matters, and all courts need to be watched, carefully.