There are three major players in the courtroom for a criminal case: the prosecutor, the defense lawyer, and the judge. Despite the different roles, all three share one responsibility: guaranteeing an impartial criminal process. But what if two of these roles are played by the same person? What if the prosecutor and the judge were puppets on a string controlled by the same hand? According to Merel Pontier, that is exactly what happened in Clinton Young’s Texas death-penalty case – and he was almost executed because of it.
Clinton Young was only 18 years old when he was present for two murders that took place over the course of three days in November 2001. It was just a few months earlier that Clinton had been released from a juvenile prison in Texas where he spent a traumatic two-and-a-half years surrounded by extreme violence, abuse, and corruption.
After his release, he began hanging out with David Page, Mark Ray, and Darnell McCoy at apartments where drugs and petty crimes were common. These three men shared a long friendship, but Clinton was new in the group. They negatively influenced Clinton’s choices as a teenager; and it was with this group that the events in late 2001 changed Clinton’s life.
On November, 24 2001, all four men drove in a car with Doyle Douglas. When the car stopped, Douglas was shot in the head while sitting in the driver’s seat – a story that is retold in four different versions by the living witnesses who were in the car. The police never went to where the murder took place, leaving a critical crime scene uninvestigated.
After the murder, the four men parted ways, and Clinton and David Page left their small East Texas town to travel west. On November 26, 2001, in Midland, Texas, the second murder occurred after a man named Samuel Petrey was kidnapped at a grocery parking lot. Petrey was found murdered at a pumpjack – a ‘nodding donkey’ pump to extract oil – shortly after.
Again, the police made a poor attempt in investigating the crime scene; no store clerks or witnesses were interviewed and no video evidence from the parking lot was obtained. After the murder, David Page went to the police and laid all blame on Clinton. The police investigated the crime scene at the pumpjack, and despite not finding any fingerprints or DNA connecting him to the murder, Clinton was arrested and charged with capital murder.
The prosecutor made secret deals with Ray and McCoy, and Page became the State’s star witness and identified Clinton as the shooter in both murders. This unreliable testimony, lacking any forensic evidence, DNA testing, ballistic science, or other independent evidence, is what convicted Clinton. Since Clinton’s conviction, forensic testing and Page’s own admissions to framing Clinton to various prisoners, journalists, investigators, and even the prosecutors themselves, point to Page as the murderer in both cases.
Clinton’s appeals proved unsuccessful. His direct appeal was denied in 2006, and a subsequent appeal was compromised due to a defense investigator, who preferred to smoke crack cocaine with the witnesses instead of interviewing them, filed fabricated statements as the basis for the appeal. In 2010, new evidence was discovered that showed prosecutors had made secret deals with Clinton’s co-defendants – their testimony in exchange for a lenient sentence – and hid this information at Clinton’s trial. The trial court denied Clinton’s appeals regardless. After Clinton lost all of his post-conviction proceedings the trial judge set an execution date for October 26, 2017.
While Clinton awaited his execution, the prosecutor secretly interviewed David Page in prison. During the interview, Page admitted he kidnapped Samuel Petrey and admitted to lying at Clinton’s trial. The prosecutor did not disclose Page’s confession until after Clinton received a stay of execution.
In his fourth writ of habeas corpus attacking the scheduled execution, Clinton introduced new evidence: a pair of gloves found at the second crime scene that Page admitted to buying mere hours before the murders. When the gloves were tested for DNA and gunshot-residue, the only DNA detected inside the gloves belonged to Page. Moreover, gunshot-residue was found on the outside. The expert who tested these gloves concluded that given the location and amount of the detected gunshot-residue, the person whose DNA was found inside the gloves had fired a gun while wearing the gloves. Clinton has always maintained that Page wore gloves when he shot the second victim, and the expert testimony validates that claim. This writ finally persuaded the highest criminal court in Texas – the Criminal Court of Appeals (CCA) – to stay Clinton’s execution just eight days before he was supposed to die by lethal injection. His case was remanded back to the trial court to resolve the issues related to Page’s false testimony given at Clinton’s 2003 trial.
In August 2019, while still waiting for the trial court to consider this new evidence, a shocking development came to light. The prosecutor on the case discovered that her predecessor Ralph Petty, who worked as a prosecutor on Clinton’s case at trial and in his appeals from 2001 to 2017, had, while prosecuting Clinton for murder, secretly and simultaneously worked as a paid law clerk for the trial judge presiding over Clinton’s case (here).
In his role as a clerk for the judge, it is alleged that he drafted rulings in Clinton’s case, advised the judge on legal matters, and had access to confidential case information that would otherwise not be accessible to a prosecutor. Petty, it seems, was working Clinton’s case from both sides, the prosecution and the judge, which made the roles of the state and an impartial court one and the same.
Petty doesn’t stand alone in his wrongdoing though; the trial judge in Clinton’s case was inherently unfair, unethical, and negligent to due process by employing Petty to be a judicial clerk while also representing the state at Clinton’s trial. It is example of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct that violates all ethical rules, statutes, the Texas Constitution, and of course the US Constitution. I’m not aware of case in any US jurisdiction that so grossly breaches a defendant’s right to a fair trial and so flagrantly violates one’s constitutional rights.
The CCA has reopened Clinton’s case two other times in the past based on new evidence presented by Clinton’s legal team in subsequent writs. The trial court in Midland time and time again held hearings in which they denied Clinton any relief. It is now clear why Clinton could never win in the trial court no matter how much evidence of his innocence was presented: the trial court judge and prosecutor were secretly and unlawfully working together against Clinton for almost two decades with the single goal of having Clinton executed. The only reason Clinton is still alive today is because the CCA – a court completely independent of the trial court – stopped his execution. Now the CCA will determine whether to reopen his case based on this recently discovered prosecutorial and judicial misconduct. The CCA could remand the case back to the trial court again, or could decide to vacate Clinton’s conviction altogether. I have faith the CCA will make the right decision. This miscarriage of justice cannot continue any longer. Clinton deserves a new and fair trial in which he can present evidence of his innocence. Clinton has now spent 17 years on death row in solitary confinement; justice is long overdue.
Merel Pontier is a jurist in the Netherlands and recently pursued an LLM in capital punishment at the University of Texas School of Law. She now works on the representation of death-sentenced individuals in Texas. Merel is board member of the Clinton Young Foundation; a Netherlands and US-based non-profit organization that raises awareness of the wrongful conviction of Clinton Young by providing legal and financial support. Merel is a licensed attorney in the State of Texas. Donate to the Clinton Young Foundation at www.clintonyoungfoundation.com.
Dutch documentary maker Jessica Villerius made a documentary on Clinton’s case – Innocent on Death Row – which can be watched here.