Longform

In the Collin County courthouse, due process has a funny way of expressing itself: payback, personal vendettas and overzealous prosecutions.

Piper McCraw received her grand jury summons with just a day's notice. She didn't have to travel far to answer it considering her job was in the same building, the Collin County Courthouse in McKinney. The vaguely neoclassical hulk with its columned entry and glass rotunda was only two years old. Year three was about to dawn as the annus horribilis for a number of the public servants working there, including McCraw.

The 33-year-old felony prosecutor had been called as a witness in the waning days of an investigation into the on-the-job activities of another Collin County official, Greg Willis, a former misdemeanor court judge. Just two months earlier, in October 2009, Willis had announced his candidacy to become the next Collin County district attorney, and the men in charge of the office he was seeking were now investigating him for abusing his office as judge. Then-District Attorney John Roach, though retiring, was no fan of Willis, and he refused to endorse him for the job he was vacating; in fact, he had opposed the appointment of Willis' wife before she became district judge. Roach, by commencing a grand jury investigation of Willis a few weeks after he announced his candidacy, raised the stench of political vendetta.

According to several sources, Special Prosecution Division chief Chris Milner, who was heading the Willis investigation, was pursuing the theory that Willis, as judge, had somehow funneled bigger fees to court-appointed attorneys by conducting trials rather than taking pleas in cases where the defendants were guilty beyond doubt. McCraw was called, along with other prosecutors, because she had been assigned to Willis' court several years earlier.

The grand jury refused to indict Willis, and in an attempt to remove the stain on his political reputation, even took the unusual step of issuing a report completely exonerating him. Willis went on to win the race and is now the district attorney of Collin County. McCraw, however, wasn't as fortunate: She became collateral damage in the investigation.

Because grand jury proceedings are held in secret, McCraw would not divulge the details of what incensed Roach and his lieutenants about the testimony she gave to the grand jury in mid-December 2009. "They didn't tell me what to say in there," she maintains in a recent interview. "Let me just say, they weren't happy with me when it was over."

Shortly after her appearance, McCraw, who had a spotless personnel file, was suspended from her job. One month later, on January 14, 2010, she received a voice mail that she had been fired, effective the following day. The career she envisioned for herself as a life-long prosecutor was over. "They never explained what I supposedly had done," says McCraw, who then set up a criminal defense practice and recently took time off to have a baby. A year after her firing, she found herself reading a Dallas Morning News account that said she had been fired "for insubordination." The line came with no particular attribution but to McCraw the source was clear. "Now they're dragging me through the mud," she says.

That a straight-arrow public servant like McCraw would have her career derailed as a bystander to an investigation with political overtones that eventually went nowhere comes as little surprise to many who watched the last year of Roach's two-term administration. Before 2010 was over, a sitting district judge, the newly elected district clerk and five other clerk's office employees would be under felony indictments.

So what came over placid, conservative Collin County (or as some defense attorneys call it, Colon County, for the lowly way those representing the accused can be treated and the harsh policies used to hammer their clients)?

Some say it was Roach's flinty style and ego, which came with a mean streak and a will to win forged in his early career in Dallas County under the tutelage of famed District Attorney Henry Wade.

Others say it grows from the rock-ribbed tenor of the place. The conservative Republican electorate gives so much deference to those upholding the law that prosecutors start believing they can use their power to investigate and accuse to settle scores with no political risk.

In that atmosphere, what one lawyer called "chicken-shit offenses" can be blown up to felonies and enemies run over by the heavy wheels of criminal indictment, even if a conviction never results.

Others see it as taking root in a locale that has rapidly grown into an urban area, but one with so many family ties and close relationships at the center of things, the county still resembles a small town.

Former Collin County DA Tom O'Connell and former District Judge Verla Sue Holland both admitted in 2008 depositions that they had engaged in a lengthy extramarital affair; a habeas corpus proceeding challenged the fairness of Holland sitting in a capital case that O'Connell had prosecuted years after their relationship had ended. Roach's son, John Roach Jr., is a district judge who did not hear criminal cases until after his father left office, and now Willis has a wife on the bench, who in turn is not hearing criminal matters. It's not unusual for Collin County law offices to feature several generations of attorneys from the same family.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec