In fact, Eric Williams had been a judicial officer. Williams, who once served as justice of the peace in Kaufman County, was arrested over the weekend in connection with the shooting deaths of assistant DA Mike Hasse (January 31) and DA Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia (March 30).
Who is the bad guy in all of this? Finding an answer to that question is not as easy as it might appear. Williams faces charges of making terroristic threats, and it appears that murder charges will come any day. But a look beneath the surface shows that Williams might have been the victim of an abusive prosecution, one that eventually led him to lash out.
Press reports had included speculation that white supremacists might be behind the murders. But The Dallas Morning News reports that a former member of the justice community now is the No. 1 suspect--and revenge, sparked by an office feud, probably is the motive.
The day after the bodies of McLelland and his wife were found, county officials received an anonymous e-mail stating that more attacks were imminent. Authorities traced the e-mail to Williams. What drove him to send such a message? From The Morning News report:
Williams was convicted of stealing county equipment last year and sentenced to probation in a highly contentious case prosecuted by McLelland and Hasse. That case is on appeal. Williams faces another theft charge in a case related to money allegedly misused from a law library fund.
Under Texas law, a justice of the peace is not required to be a lawyer, but Williams has a law degree and was a member of the bar. After his conviction on theft charges, Williams was suspended from his office and likely will lose his law license if the conviction is upheld.
Williams was sentenced last April to two years probation and fined $2,500. He alleges in appellate documents that at least two prosecution witnesses provided false testimony.
How did a justice of the peace wind up getting charged with theft? The Dallas Morning News provides details in an article titled "Complex picture arises of ex-Kaufman justice of peace eyed in case."
Williams stood accused of felony theft of property worth more than $500 but less than $1,500 by a public servant and burglary.
At issue were three computer monitors taken from a county storage area. Two of the monitors were found in Williams’ county office, according to testimony. The third was located in his truck.
In court documents, Williams said he never committed theft. He said he took the monitors so that he could conduct hearings with jail prisoners from his office, a process known as “video magistration.”
He said he’d planned to take the monitor in his truck to the jail but hadn’t gotten around to it.
At the heart of most any theft case is an intent to deceive and deprive the owner of possession of property. Two of the monitors that Williams supposedly stole were found in his county office. A third was found in his vehicle, apparently in plain view. If Williams was trying to deprive anyone of property, while hiding his actions, he sure had a peculiar way of doing it.
The case gets murkier when we learn that Williams and McLelland had long had a contentious relationship. Williams had publicly opposed McLelland's unsuccessful run for the DA's office in 2006, leading to a feud that apparently continued after both men were elected to public office in 2010. Reports The Morning News:
By Williams’ account, there was bad blood between him and McLelland long before Williams first faced criminal charges in late 2011. That was less than a year after Williams was elected as a justice of the peace and McLelland became DA.
Williams tried to get McLelland disqualified from prosecuting him, according to court records. David Sergi, one of Williams’ attorneys, wrote that “a high degree of animosity” developed when Williams opposed McLelland’s unsuccessful 2006 bid for the DA’s office.
Sergi alleged that the “mutual dislike . . . only intensified” when Williams published a letter shortly before the 2006 election day “questioning whether McLelland possessed sufficient character and integrity to hold office.”
McLelland and Hasse seemed to take unusual delight in seeing Williams tried and convicted. Here is how The Kaufman Herald described some of their comments during and after the trial:
Suspended justice of the peace Eric Williams has been found guilty on all charges by a Kaufman County jury in the 422nd District Court on Friday.
“I’m ecstatic,” District Attorney Mike McLellan said after the verdicts were announced. “It shows the community that elected officials should be, and are, held to a higher standard. It’s not the old system over here any more. . . .”
What did Hasse have to say about Williams?
"This guy sitting over at the end of the defense table is an elected official who is nothing but a thief and a burglar," Hasse said.
At least one member of the Kaufman County legal community did not agree with McLelland and Hasse. In fact, this lawyer says Williams was targeted for a bogus prosecution:
Kaufman County attorney Jenny Parks said that she believed that Williams was the victim of a political vendetta “without a doubt.”
“The whole thing was a witch hunt and anyone in the legal community here knows that,” she said. . . .
“The items he ‘stole’ were only for county use because . . . the IT department wouldn’t fix his computer,” Parks said. “Eric is a computer whiz and the IT guy took offense to that.”
Many questions remain about the Texas DA murders. But this much seems clear: A feud among lawyers apparently drove them--and white supremacists had nothing to do with it.
For now, this appears to be a matter of a county official taking a couple of computers out of storage and using them in his office--and taking one computer home to work on it when IT personnel refused to fix it. For that, Eric Williams was charged with theft, and saw his professional career ruined.
We have reported extensively on the abusive actions of prosecutors, especially in the federal cases of Don Siegelman in Alabama and Paul Minor in Mississippi. We now have a state case in Texas where two prosecutors apparently decided to pick on a guy they saw as a political rival--and it looks like Eric Williams proved to be the wrong guy to pick on.
Would Mike McLelland and Mike Hasse have brought such a flimsy theft case against one of their buddies? The answer, in my mind, is "of course not." They went after Eric Williams because they didn't like him and saw him as a threat to their political aspirations. In other words they "prosecuted a person, not a crime"--and that decision had deadly consequences.