Strong Convictions

Hard-line leaders such as loopy Stephen Mansfield have taken their agenda to the Court of Criminal Appeals, where legal precedents--not prosecutions--get overturned

Mansfield was a two-bit insurance company lawyer in Houston when he was elected to the court in 1994, despite lying during his campaign that he had substantial criminal-law experience and was a Texas native.

The State Bar of Texas slapped him with a reprimand for his dishonesty. Then, just when it seemed like Mansfield maybe wasn't the dolt his 1994 campaign exposed him to be, he was arrested last year for scalping University of Texas football tickets outside the stadium before a game. The state's Commission on Judicial Conduct reprimanded him. An Austin-based judge last month accepted his no-contest plea to trespassing, sentencing him to six months' probation, a $300 fine and 30 hours of community service. His criminal record will be wiped clean if he successfully completes his sentence.

Mansfield, a judge who has disrespected the law and lacked integrity, is a main suspect in writing legal opinions that critics argue disrespect the law and lack integrity. As Judge Meyers would say, go figure.

Attorney Brian Wice says voters had no idea of the real Mansfield.
Steve Lowry
Attorney Brian Wice says voters had no idea of the real Mansfield.
Former judge Baird in 1997 called the court majority "partisan advocates."
John Anderson
Former judge Baird in 1997 called the court majority "partisan advocates."

Forest J. Hall, a 22-year-old Parkland Memorial Hospital employee, returned to his car after shopping at Dallas's Red Bird Mall. There, he came upon 19-year-old George Alarick Jones, armed with a .38 caliber semiautomatic handgun.

Jones and accomplice Derrick Rodgers forced Hall into his car at gunpoint and robbed him. They drove him south of the city, to a remote area of Lancaster. As Hall lay face down in a roadside ditch, Jones fired two shots into the back of Hall's head. Going outside their usual practice of seeking life sentences in capital murder cases, Dallas County prosecutors went after the death penalty for Jones. They got it.

How the verdict and sentence were reached -- not whether Jones committed the April 1993 homicide -- was at issue in Jones's appeal, which attorney Anderson brought before the Court of Criminal Appeals. The Jones appeal illustrates the lengths to which Mansfield and his agenda-driven colleagues will go to uphold convictions.

At Jones's trial, the judge wrongly allowed prosecutors to exclude a prospective juror perceived as friendly to the defense, thus effectively giving the state a numbers advantage in jury selection. The Court of Criminal Appeals ruled 6-3 in September 1998 that the trial judge had made an error, but it found that the mistake had not prevented Jones from having an impartial jury and a fair trial -- an incongruous ruling considering that one holdout juror can be the only difference between a sentence of life or death for a defendant.

The court's opinion took advantage of a new rule of appellate procedure that the court adopted in 1997. The court has exploited the rule to make it next to impossible for an appellant to prove that a trial error warrants reversal of a conviction.

Prior to 1997 the state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a trial error did not contribute to either conviction or punishment. That burden shifted with the new rule, which says the court must disregard an "error, defect, irregularity or variance" unless defendants can prove it affected their "substantial rights." The court has yet to rule in favor of a defendant under this new test, because in its mind essentially no right is substantial enough to warrant the reversal of a conviction.

The court even appears unwilling to reverse a conviction if a trial error has violated a defendant's constitutional rights. In the Jones case, the court followed a warped trail of legal reasoning to conclude that the trial error violated neither Jones's Sixth Amendment right to a fair and impartial jury nor his "substantial rights."

In his motion for the court to reconsider, Anderson says it comes as a "great surprise to both the casual observer and the seasoned legal veteran" that the court can "sit back and piously declare that the fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution to a fair and impartial jury is not affected."

He then asks: "What could ever rise to the level of a 'substantial right' if not the improper exclusion of a qualified juror in a capital case?" The answer, based on the court's interpretations of the new rule, is nothing.

In his opinion, Mansfield writes that Jones is guaranteed the right to an impartial jury, but that the exclusion of a potentially defense-friendly juror does not mean he did not receive one. "A defendant has no right that any particular individual serve on the jury. The defendant's only substantial right is that the jurors who do serve be qualified."

Since Jones did not show that the jury he got was biased, he cannot argue he had an unfair jury, Mansfield reasons. Anderson points out in his motion, however, that Jones didn't realize during his 1995 trial that he would have to prove jury bias to win on appeal. That burden of proof became law only in the Jones opinion itself.

"[Jones's] trial counsel was obviously hopelessly inept because he played by the rules of the game as they existed at the time of the trial or clairvoyance-challenged because he could not predict that four years later the Court of Criminal Appeals would adopt entirely new rules," Anderson sarcastically writes. "ŠTo retroactively apply new rules when trial counsel had no choice but to play by the rules established at the time of the game violates our fundamental notions of fair play."

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