A former justice of the peace has been arrested on allegations of capital murder along with his spouse, in connection with the slayings of the Kaufman County district attorney, his wife and one of his assistant prosecutors.
And the two special prosecutors assigned, Toby Shook and Bill Wirskye, both former Dallas County assistant district attorneys, will have to decide whether to seek the death penalty.
Kaufman County DA Mike McLelland was slain on March 30 along with his wife, Cynthia, inside their home near Forney. Two months earlier, Mark Hasse, a Kaufman County ADA, was fatally shot while walking from the employee parking lot to work.
Eric Lyle Williams was arrested in connection with allegations of capital murder on April 18, according to his arrest warrant.
His wife, Kim Lene Williams, was arrested on April 17 on allegations of capital murder, according to her arrest warrant. She "confessed her involvement" in the slayings, according to a sworn affidavit for warrant of arrest.
According to his affidavit for warrant of arrest, Eric Williams was convicted in March 2012 of the felony offenses of burglary of a building and theft by a public servant in Kaufman County. Hasse and McLelland were the prosecuting attorneys in Williams’ cases. Williams was subsequently removed from his elected justice-of-the-peace office after the conviction and remains suspended without pay pending his appeal.
Hasse and McLelland both believed Eric Williams blamed them for his removal from office, and they both regularly carried handguns after Williams’ trial, because they believed Williams was a threat to their personal safety, notes the affidavit.
Law enforcement officials later received information that Eric Williams had a friend rent a storage unit for Williams. Inside the storage unit, investigators found a stash of 41 firearms and "ammunition consistent with that used" in the Hasse and McLelland slayings. The unit also contained a 2004 Ford Crown Victoria. A Crown Victoria was spotted on a security camera leaving the storage facility shortly before the McLelland slayings and returning to the facility shortly after the slayings, according to the affidavit.
Eric Williams was originally arrested on April 12 on allegations of a misdemeanor terroristic threat. An email allegedly sent from an IP address in Eric Williams’ home after the McLelland murders "threatens future acts of violence against Kaufman county officials" according to the affidavit.
Kim and Eric Williams are being held in the Kaufman County Jail. An official at the Kaufman County Jail says both Williamses have refused requests for interviews with the media.
It is not known whether either has retained criminal-defense attorneys. Neither has been officially charged in connection with the slayings.
The Williamses will be prosecuted by Toby Shook and Bill Wirskye of Dallas’ Shook Gunter & Wirskye. Judge Michael Chitty of the 422nd District Court appointed them as special prosecutors in the case in early April; the Kaufman County DA’s office had recused itself from the case shortly after Hasse was killed.
Weeks before he was slain, McLelland had input into the appointment of Shook and Wirskye, who now will have to decide whether to seek the death penalty against the Williamses.
"Obviously, the case is still under investigation. That decision won’t be made until the investigation is complete," Shook says.
Shook and Wirskye have tried numerous death penalty cases, most notably the "Texas Seven" cases, involving seven Texas inmates who escaped from prison in 2000 and murdered an Irving Police officer during their flight. While one of the inmates committed suicide before his capture, six of the surviving escapees were sentenced to death — convictions that all withstood appeal.
Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 2.07 allows a special prosecutor, or an "attorney pro tem," in the event a DA is unable to prosecute a case. Special prosecutors are usually appointed when a DA’s office has a conflict of interest or to help elected DAs pursue difficult cases.
While it is unusual for a special prosecutor to make the call on whether to pursue the death penalty, Article 2.07 gives him or her that authority, says Judge George Gallagher of Fort Worth’s 396th District Court. Gallagher served as a special prosecutor in the mid-1990s before taking the bench.
"All a special prosecutor does is that lawyer steps into the shoes of the DA. If the local DA recuses, which is usually what happens, a special prosecutor is appointed and steps in for the DA in that case. Just like in any other case, the DA gets to make the decision on whether to seek the death penalty," Gallagher says. "He could plead the case, he could dismiss the case. He will be the person in charge of making all of those decisions."
Another interesting question is how the prosecution will handle Texas Rule of Evidence Rule 504. It’s the spousal-privilege rule, which allows a spouse "to refuse to disclose and to prevent another from disclosing a confidential communication made to the person’s spouse while they were married."
There are exceptions to the rule, including if the communication was made in furtherance of a crime or fraud.
Also, the rule "does not prohibit the spouse from testifying voluntarily for the state, even over objection by the accused."
Noting that Kim Williams allegedly has confessed her involvement in the slayings, the rule would not prevent her from testifying against her husband if she is willing, says Ken Williams, a law professor at South Texas College of Law who teaches Texas criminal procedure.
"She is the one who can waive it. It’s her privilege," says Williams, who is no relation to the defendants. "She can actually testify against him if she wants to. He can’t prevent her from testifying."
However, the rule will allow Eric Williams to prevent his wife from testifying about their private conversations.
"He can prevent her testifying about anything they discussed in private, between the two of them," Williams says. "He can prevent the prosecutors from disclosing that information."
However, that privilege does not cover the "actions" of the couple, Williams says. "Anything they did, she can testify to," Williams says. "But anything they said, she cannot testify to."
Justice-of-the-peace courts are one of the oldest and most common trial courts in Texas. The state’s 819 justice-of-the-peace courts handle civil actions of not more than $10,000 in controversy, small claims, and criminal misdemeanors punishable by fine only. Justices of the peace are not required to have law licenses to sit on the bench.
Eric Williams was the rare JP who held a law degree. However, his law license was suspended as part of his agreed order with the Board of Disciplinary Appeals on Oct 9, 2012, following his felony conviction.