Reversal is the first of its kind in more than 20 years
On July 30, a pro bono team consisting of Christene Wood, a Senior Attorney with Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, L.L.P., Jack Carnegie, a partner with Strasburger & Price, and John Hagan, an attorney with Jackson Gilmour & Dobbs, P.C., successfully vacated the conviction of a minor who was certified for trial as an adult at age 16 and sentenced to 30 years for murder. In a 25-page opinion, the Houston First Court of Appeals vacated the conviction of a young man who has been incarcerated in an adult facility since he was sixteen years old. The Court held that the juvenile court abused its discretion in certifying the minor and vacated his criminal conviction. The ruling is extraordinary because in thousands of cases involving children who have been certified to stand trial as adults in Texas, not one certification ruling had been reversed in more than two decades.
Wood practices in our firm’s insurance litigation section and had no experience in criminal matters until learning of this case in 2008. She spent hundreds of hours preparing a brief in response and opposition to the State’s motion to transfer the minor to adult criminal court. When the juvenile court transferred the minor, Wood prepared a petition for writ of mandamus which she sent to Carnegie and Hagan, both of whom had been her bosses when she was a legal assistant. Within minutes, both Carnegie and Hagan were on board, pro bono. The three of them prepared a petition for writ of mandamus which was ultimately denied because, as they found out, since 1995, children who are certified as adults have been statutorily barred from appealing a certification until the end of criminal court proceedings. Even more shocking was to learn that children under 17 were placed in solitary confinement “for their own good” in Harris County Jail and some were kept over a year in that condition before having their case dismissed or found innocent. They had no remedy, no Constitutional protection, and no voice.
Wood was relentless in her efforts to stop sending children to be tortured who had not been convicted of a crime. Wood’s efforts included hundreds of hours of pro bono work by lawyers in four separate law firms, including Thompson Coe. Wood also rallied the support of two public interest groups who filed amicus briefs at both the mandamus and appellate stages: Texas Appleseed and The University of Houston Center for Children’s Law and Policy.
Even before the conviction was vacated on July 30, as a result of this case and Wood’s efforts, Texas passed a law in 2011 requiring that minors merely accused of a crime must remain in juvenile facilities until their trials.
Wood, Jack Carnegie, John Hagan, and criminal lawyer David Adler hope that the hundreds of hours spent working pro bono on this matter and this monumental opinion will encourage juvenile courts and prosecutors to look deeper into the circumstances of each child and choose rehabilitation first in keeping with the purpose of the Family Code.