Weldon Ralph Petty Jr., a chain-smoking bespectacled attorney, was a quiet fixture at the Midland County courthouse for two decades. By day, he often appeared before judges as an assistant district attorney in the 11-story brown brick courthouse in the heart of the oil boomtown. But by night, he worked as a paid legal assistant for those same jurists—sometimes advising them how to handle criminal cases he also was prosecuting.
For more than a decade, Petty, 78, committed “brazen misconduct” by simultaneously acting as a prosecutor and a paid adviser to supposedly impartial judges, according to a scathing judicial opinion issued April 28. The opinion calls for overturning Midland County’s only death penalty case due to Petty’s prosecutoral misconduct and the judge’s failure to recuse himself, and opens the door for a new trial for Clinton Lee Young, who has been on death row since Petty prosecuted him in 2003.
A February expose by USA Today first reported that Petty was paid by judges as a clerk in at least 350 cases from 2001 until his retirement as an assistant district attorney in mid-2019. At least 73 of the people Petty helped to prosecute remain in prison. Dozens of those convicted recently received letters advising them of Petty’s conflicts of interest and his failure to disclose his side jobs with judges. It’s unclear whether any defense attorneys will file appeals necessary to air other defendants’ claims in court.
In response to a motion from the Bar disciplinary counsel, Petty has surrendered his law license in lieu of disciplinary action, according to an order issued by the Texas Supreme Court. Formal disciplinary action against a current or former prosecutor is extremely rare in Texas. Petty did not respond to a request for comment.
Normally, prosecutors are barred from privately communicating with judges about legal matters, even indirectly related to their own cases. Judges’ clerks, in turn, are forbidden from disclosing internal reviews to prosecutors or defense attorneys. Petty’s behavior failed on all counts, writes visiting judge Sid Harle, who issued broad findings of fact and conclusions of law in response to Young’s latest state appeal.
In his April 28 opinion, Harle branded Petty’s behavior as “shocking prosecutorial misconduct that destroyed any semblance of a fair trial.” Harle wrote that Petty violated Young’s due process rights, and that the judge who employed Petty should have disqualified himself from the case since Petty was his employee. Harle has recommended that the courts declare all judgments entered against Young to be “null and void.”
Young was sentenced to death in 2003 for his role in a methamphetamine-fueled crime spree that resulted in two deaths. He was 18 at the time of the murders. As part of their work on the case, his appellate attorneys discovered that prosecutors made side deals with co-defendants that were not disclosed. But they didn’t know that Perry, who was part of the prosecution team, was simultaneously working for judges, including Judge John Hyde, who presided over Young’s trial.
Petty’s double roles—and dual state paychecks—apparently were condoned by two previous elected district attorneys in Midland, who failed to disclose his conflicts to Young or other defendants, though they were legally obliged to do so. Petty’s contract in 2001 allowed moonlighting. His supervisors did not halt the practice even after his paychecks from the prosecution and from the judiciary were questioned by the Internal Revenue Service in a 2008 audit, court records show.
That changed in August 2019, when the current Midland County District Attorney Laura Nodolf discovered Petty’s moonlighting in a review of billing records, and disclosed it. She also recused her office from Young’s pending appeal. Nodolf did not respond to a request for comment, but in a letter in the court file she has described Perry’s conduct as a “direct violation” of the state’s code of conduct for attorneys.
Since June 2013, the State Bar of Texas has fielded about 400 complaints about prosecutors. At least two others were compelled to resign to avoid disciplinary action, according to bar officials, and two were disbarred for misconduct in capital murder cases. One of those disciplinary actions involved a death penalty case: Former Burleson County DA Charles Sebesta was disbarred in 2015 for his egregious misconduct that sent another innocent man, Anthony Graves, to death row.
Graves, now an author and legal defense activist, spent 18 years on death row before winning his freedom. He said the Petty case is “just one of many cases that continues to highlight the unethical practices coming out of the district attorneys offices across the country and why there needs to be an oversight committee to hold prosecutors accountable.”
Nicole Casarez, an attorney who fought for years to help exonerate Graves said that she worries that the bar tends to “enforce the rules in only a few flagrant cases, while ignoring most misbehaving prosecutors.” Hyde, who presided over Young’s trial, is now dead. But, Casarez says, “Petty is only half of the equation here. I’m concerned about the judges that he worked for—some of them are still on the bench. I would like to see the State Commission on Judicial Conduct hold them accountable for how they, too, denied these defendants their constitutional right to a fair trial.”