As Harris County judges prepare to appoint the next bail hearing officer in a time of tense litigation, the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association is “vehemently opposing” one particular applicant: a prosecutor who has in the past been accused of misconduct.
“Connie Spence has historically exhibited conduct and judgment unbecoming of anyone licensed as an attorney in the State of Texas,” the association wrote in regards to the prosecutor in a release this week. “As an assistant prosecutor she has misused her power to the detriment of the people of Harris County.”
The Houston Press asked Spence for comment for this story by going through the Harris County District Attorney's Office. She declined our request.
If she is chosen as a magistrate (also called a bail hearing officer), Spence's primary responsibilities would include determining whether a criminal case has probable cause to continue, reading people their rights and setting their bail — responsibilities that defense attorneys say are more important than ever as Harris County seeks to reform this particular stage of the criminal justice system.
The current magistrates have been sued individually for allegedly failing to consider the ability of defendants to pay bail as required by the Constitution. Right now, magistrates set the bail according to a strict schedule that does not consider anyone's individual circumstances. The lawsuit — filed against the county by the national group Equal Justice Under Law and a local Houston firm, Susman Godfrey — does not seek monetary damages. Attorneys say they are only asking for swift, comprehensive bail reform so that people are no longer incarcerated pretrial in an overcrowded jail simply because they are too poor to pay for their release.
Judges and magistrates would be in charge of executing any potential new policies. Which is why the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association says that a win-at-all-costs prosecutor, as they described Spence, would not be the person for the job.
“She is unfit for the position because, to be a judge, it requires a detached, neutral and fair person,” said Tyler Flood, president of the lawyers association. “Her past actions speak volumes about how she would compose herself in the future.”
Defense attorney JoAnne Musick said a primary red flag was Spence's alleged misconduct in the Linda Carty murder trial. Carty was sent to death row after Spence and her fellow trial prosecutor, Craig Goodhart, persuaded a jury that Carty instructed three men to kidnap her neighbor so Carty could steal her neighbor's newborn baby. The mother was later found dead in the trunk of a car tied to Carty. But in a post-conviction hearing this year, star witnesses whose testimony helped convict Carty came forward to accuse Spence and Goodhart of threatening them and coercing certain testimony. A retired DEA agent also chimed in to accuse Spence of coercion.
Spence and Goodhart were also accused of hiding as many as 18 recorded statements from Carty's defense lawyers and destroying notes and emails. As the Houston Chronicle reported in a lengthy recounting of the hearing, Spence and Goodhart admitted to losing or trashing some notes and emails, but not to any form of coercion or fabrication of testimony.
Carty's writ of habeas corpus application was denied in the weeks following the hearing. The judge ruled there was not enough evidence to prove that Spence and Goodhart coerced witnesses into giving false or misleading testimony that led to Carty's death sentence.
Still, Musick said that various defense attorneys have been wary of Spence's tactics in the past, and that this was only the first time accusations of misconduct were documented on the record. “There is a general distrust among defense attorneys as to working with her,” Musick said.
Musick said that, when it comes to bail reform, activists and attorneys are calling for more authority to be placed in the hands of these magistrates. As it stands, Musick and various other attorneys the Press has talked to in the past said that magistrates simply follow the instructions given to them by judges — which may explain why they so rarely stray from the bail schedule when setting a person's bail. Reformers want the next magistrate and the current ones who are sued to actually start exercising discretion and treating each person before them as an individual.
“It's extremely disheartening that these people are placed here with no authority to exercise discretion,” Musick said. “They really do not deviate from the bail schedule — and it makes sense, because they're beholden to the judges. The judges appoint them and employ them. Why would they appoint someone who doesn't follow their rules?”