A district judge who was wrongfully convicted of nine felonies has sued the prosecutors involved in the case, alleging they prosecuted her maliciously for a political agenda.
Because of the convictions, former 380th District Judge Suzanne Wooten of Collin County had to resign her bench and saw her law license suspended, but last May a court acquitted her of all charges, declared her actually innocent, and she became a licensed lawyer again in June 2017. Wooten has now brought a federal civil rights lawsuit against the prosecutors she claims conspired to wrongfully indict and prosecute her by “inventing and perverting law, misleading judges and juries” and dismantling Wooten’s life and career.
“She wants to be vindicated. This lawsuits serves as the last chapter in her struggles to vindicate herself and show what happened to her was wrong and unjust. They ruined her life,” said Dallas solo practitioner Scott H. Palmer, who represents Wooten. “Her civil rights were trampled on, and she wants to prove that.”
The defendants are Collin County, former Collin County District Attorney John Roach Sr., former Collin County assistant DA Christopher Milner, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office investigated and prosecuted Wooten, and former assistant AG Harry White, attorney pro tem in Wooten’s case. She is suing the individual defendants only in their personal capacities.
Bob Davis, who represents Collin County, Roach and Milner, declined to comment.
“We will reserve our right to address the allegations in federal court at the appropriate time in an appropriate manner,” said Davis, partner in Matthews, Shiels, Knott, Eden, Davis & Beanland in Dallas. “All of those denials and immunities and all that will be presented to a federal judge in our pleadings.”
Abbott and White each didn’t return calls seeking comment.
“The defendants conducted a reckless criminal investigation, knowingly arresting plaintiff without probable cause and pursued a criminal prosecution of plaintiff for alleged conduct that was not criminal and based upon ‘facts’ they knew were untrue,” said the May 29 amended complaint in Wooten v. Roach, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas in Sherman. “At the time of plaintiff’s wrongful arrest and prosecution, there was a widespread practice in the [DA’s office] of abusing prosecutorial powers.”
Palmer acknowledged there’s a hurdle to overcome because the defendants will likely argue they have immunity. But he noted that rather than just prosecuting a case coming from a law enforcement agency, the prosecutors here, with no police involved, brought the case from start to finish. He said there are narrow exceptions to absolute and qualified immunity, and Wooten’s case has a good shot at meeting them.
“We have an excellent opportunity to either make some good law or carve out a bigger exception,” Palmer explained. “There’s going to be a major struggle between which role they played and how they will frame their immunity—it’s going to be interesting.”
Being wrongfully convicted
Wooten won election to the 380th District Court in Collin County by beating the incumbent, Judge Charles Sandoval, in the Republican primary in 2008. She started as judge in 2009. Sandoval filed a complaint against Wooten with the Collin County DA’s office.
The DA’s office decided to investigate Wooten and started grand jury proceedings. Later, the Texas AG’s office aided the investigation, which lasted two years. A final indictment was filed against Wooten in July 2011 for nine felonies including bribery, money laundering, tampering with a government record and engaging in organized criminal activity.
There were three codefendants—David Cary and his wife Stacy Cary, who had family law matters in the 380th District Court, and James Spencer, a consulted who worked for both the Carys and as Wooten’s campaign media consultant. The central allegation was that the Carys funneled money through Spencer to Wooten’s campaign, in exchange for Wooten to file to run as a judge, campaign against Sandoval and issue favorable rulings in the Cary family law cases. For more on the background of the case and the legal arguments involved, read Texas Lawyer’s December 2017 feature story, “How the Justice System Severely Failed One of its Own.”
In the end, a jury convicted Wooten of nine felonies in November 2011, and the state offered her 10 years of probation if she would resign and waive her right to appeal. She accepted the offer, but didn’t change her plea of not guilty and didn’t waive her right to habeas corpus relief. She was sentenced to 10 years of probation and a $10,000 fine.
“Ultimately, the criminal case against plaintiff fell apart when her alleged co-conspirators were held by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to be actually innocent and that there was no evidence of any wrondoing,” said the complaint.
A writ of actual innocence exonerated Wooten on May 24, 2017, after more than five years on probation.
Alleged malicious prosecution
Wooten’s lawsuit lays out the allegations against the prosecutors.
She didn’t engage in any of the conduct the defendants alleged, and they knew the law didn’t make that conduct illegal. They wanted her convicted despite her innocence and although they knew she didn’t commit a crime, they “intentionally misrepresented the law and facts” to get her convicted, said the complaint.
The DA’s office had “malicious political motivations” because it wanted Wooten off the bench, as it disagreed with her rulings in criminal cases.
The complaint noted that the AG’s office became involved in the case because Milner, the assistant DA, requested its assistance in December 2008 and assistant AG White worked on the case.
According to the complaint, the FBI in 2010 looked into Wooten’s prosecution and met with White. The FBI created a report listing Wooten as a “victim” and the suspects as Roach, Milner and former first assistant DA Gregory Davis. Wooten in 2011 had used a public information act request to get the FBI report from the AG’s office, but the office initially redacted certain things and withheld 35 pages. A court ordered the entire report to be produced in 2011.
“It was clear that the FBI report contained information that was exculpatory and was intentionally withheld,” alleged the complaint.
Wooten claimed that the DA’s office abused the grand jury process from 2008 to 2011, using six grand juries to subpoena many types of records and witnesses. One of the grand juries in 2009 wrote to its presiding judge that the case was unnecessary, wasted tax dollars and Wooten hadn’t committed a crime. In 2010, one grand juror told the FBI that prosecutors presented the Wooten case to the grand jury in an odd way and he believed it was a political witch hunt. Also, a judge once found in 2010 that prosecutors reassembled one grand jury after its term was ended, without the court’s authority or permission.
The complaint said Wooten felt the DA’s office was trying to intimidate her. Milner would sit in the back of her courtroom, watching her. People she didn’t know would drive by and photograph her house and family. Milner in 2009 told Wooten’s lawyer that he would give Wooten a week to resign or she would face indictment and lose her house, law license, family, reputation, and she would go to prison, alleged the complaint.
The complaint alleged the DA’s office had a pattern of similar abuse in other cases. Milner won indictments against sheriffs in surrounding counties, and indictments against criminal defense attorneys, but judges threw out the indictments.
Wooten is suing the defendants under 42 U.S. Code Sec. 1983 for violations of her rights to due process, to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, supervisory capacity and failure to intervene. She’s suing the individual defendants for conspiring to deprive her constitutional rights, malicious prosecution and abuse of process. She’s suing Collin County for Monell liability for having a policy or pattern of wrongful arrests and prosecutions. Wooten seeks to recover damages for mental anguish, lost wages and diminished earning capacity, punitive damages, costs and attorney fees, and pre and postjudgment interest.
Former attorney pro tem White, who didn’t return a call seeking comment, previously told Texas Lawyer that he never acted improperly or went on a political witch hunt—he was just doing his job and did the best that he could with the evidence at the time.
“When you’ve got two sides to a story, the advocates put forth what they believe the evidence is at the time. I think this is different than something where you’ve got DNA that shows someone is actually innocent,” White said. “The courts disagree with me—quite clearly they did.”