Updated at 6:42 p.m. Story has been revised throughout and includes new details.
A former district judge declared innocent last year of multiple felony convictions has filed suit against Collin County and the four men she says misrepresented the law and targeted her in “a sham investigation.”
The federal civil suit filed Wednesday by Suzanne H. Wooten is the latest move in a years-long dispute mired in politics, improprieties and legal maneuverings.
Wooten claims not only that her constitutional rights were violated but also that the charges against her were part of a larger “pattern of abuse of power and malicious prosecution for political gain” plaguing the Collin County district attorney’s office at that time.
Named as defendants are former Collin County District Attorney John Roach Sr., Gov. Greg Abbott, who was the Texas attorney general at the time, former Collin County Assistant District Attorney Christopher Milner and Harry E. White, who prosecuted the Wooten case for the AG’s office and is now in private practice.
The four men are named in their individual capacity only, not as elected officials or public employees.
The suit also lists Collin County as a defendant, alleging “widespread practices so well settled as to constitute de facto policy.”
County officials said Thursday that they do not comment on pending litigation. White also declined to comment.
Roach, who retired in 2010 after eight years as the Collin County district attorney, could not be reached. Neither could Milner.
Abbott served three terms as Texas attorney general before being elected governor in 2014. The Republican governor is seeking re-election and will face Democrat Lupe Valdez in November. His office did not respond to requests for comment.
‘Abuse of power’
Scott H. Palmer, who is representing Wooten, said in a prepared statement Thursday that the suit is meant “to ensure accountability at all levels of the criminal justice system and to promote respect for the law.”
“This lawsuit will expose the truth: that both the Collin County District Attorney and the Attorney General, using their hand-picked assistants, misused their authority for a political and personal vendetta against Judge Wooten,” he stated. “This abuse of power caused a manifest miscarriage of justice that demands that their actions be exposed and fully addressed so this can never happen again.”
Wooten’s suit requests a jury trial and seeks compensatory as well as punitive damages and other relief related to mental anguish, lost wages and diminished earning capacity.
She was sentenced to 10 years’ probation, fined $10,000 and ordered to do more than 1,000 hours of community service. As part of her conviction, she was forced to resign from the bench and had her law license suspended for 10 years.
On May 24, 2017, she was formally acquitted of all charges and declared innocent.
But the damage to her career, her finances and her personal life had already been done.
Landslide election victory
The criminal case involved her 2008 campaign for the seat held by longtime state District Judge Charles Sandoval. Wooten won the Republican primary election in a landslide, faced no opposition in the general election and took office in January 2009.
At trial, White presented evidence in an effort to show that Wooten’s campaign had accepted $150,000 from a University Park couple in exchange for future favorable rulings in a contentious child-custody case.
David and Stacy Stine Cary said they made six payments to Wooten’s campaign manager, Steven Spencer, for consulting work unrelated to the election.
Spencer used some of the money to cover Wooten’s campaign expenses and then sent her invoices over several months for those amounts.
Campaign finance reports showed Wooten paid for all of the expenses related to her campaign using donations and personal funds.
There was no evidence Wooten ever received money from the Carys. Wooten said she had never heard of them.
Her suit claims the defendants “conspired to wrongfully obtain an indictment and prosecute plaintiff by inventing and perverting law, misleading judges and juries and taking apart plaintiff’s life and career one piece at a time.”
Criminal cases are typically investigated by a law enforcement agency and then forwarded to the DA’s office for prosecution. But with Milner’s hiring, the district attorney’s office began investigating cases without any involvement of law enforcement, Wooten’s suit alleges.
In 2011, before Wooten’s trial began, District Attorney Greg Willis called for the removal of the attorney general’s office from the case. He said the prosecution was “cloaked in the appearance of impropriety.” The AG’s office called Willis’ allegations baseless and lacking legal merit.
Wooten was tried and convicted first. The Carys were convicted by separate juries based on the same evidence in Wooten’s case. Their convictions were overturned after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled there was insufficient evidence to support the bribery and money laundering convictions.
Spencer, the campaign manager, pleaded guilty in 2013 to three felony charges in exchange for probation for his role in the case.
‘Not playing ball’
Wooten’s suit alleges she was targeted “for not playing ball with the powers that be.” It cites “pressuring of witnesses, destruction of evidence and a clear misuse and abuse of the grand jury process.”
At least five grand juries were used to subpoena records and witnesses to gather evidence before Wooten was indicted.
In 2009, one grand jury sent a letter to the presiding judge, stating it thought the Wooten case “was unnecessary, a waste of taxpayer dollars and that no crime had been committed,” the suit states.
Wooten’s suit states her prosecution wasn’t the only example of wrongful conduct.
“It was widely known in the legal community that the [Collin County district attorney’s office] had a Special Crimes Division headed by Defendant Milner who used heavy-handed tactics and strategies to investigate, intimidate and often indict those who were his enemies,” according to the suit.
The suit cites an investigation into then-County Court at Law Judge Greg Willis in 2010 while he was a candidate for district attorney.
Indictments were obtained but later thrown out against then-Denton County Sheriff Weldon Lucas, then-Dallas County Sheriff Jim Bowles and then-Dallas County Jail commissary vendor Jack Madera.
Also, two unnamed defense attorneys were indicted on charges of tampering with a government record, the suit states. Those indictments also were dropped.
The district judge who tossed the case against Bowles ruled in 2004 that prosecutors overreached when they obtained an indictment for an action that was not a crime.
In 2005, after the indictments against Madera were dropped, his attorney complained about a strategy in which Collin County prosecutors “indict these people, ruin their lives and then worry about whether we can prove it or not.”
No crime committed
David Cary served 19 months in prison before he and his wife were cleared of all charges in December 2016. Those rulings paved the way for Wooten to seek a declaration of innocence.
Last year, in a courtroom packed with supporters, the judge found that the evidence in Wooten’s case was legally insufficient and that the allegations “even if true, were not crimes under Texas law.”
Wooten’s federal suit alleges that the defendants knew she had committed no crime but had intentionally misrepresented the law and facts to secure her conviction.
It alleges those actions were part of a pattern in Collin County that was allowed “to exist and thrive because the policymaker(s) with authority over the same exhibited deliberate indifference to the problem, thereby effectively ratifying it.”
Exonerated judge sues former Collin County DA, former AG Abbott and prosecutors over alleged ‘sham investigation.