Longform

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

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The grand jury probe that threatened to do much harm to Willis' candidacy was rooted in a Roach office policy that drove defense lawyers to distraction, a policy one won't find in Dallas or Tarrant counties today.

According to several lawyers, including one close to Willis, Roach would not permit his assistants to dismiss cases, even weak ones or cases that had fallen apart. Instead, they'd take it to a judge and have the judge find the defendant not guilty in a so-called bench trial, without a jury.

"It's unfair to the judges because these would be things like weak DWI cases," one defense lawyer says. With Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others assembling report cards on elected judges, a judge with numerous dismissals could be construed to be "weak."

Willis, the source says, nudged prosecutors and asked them to help even the score by trying a few cases in front of him that were likely to result in guilty verdicts. "The allegation was that these cases should have been dispatched with guilty pleas and that court-appointed defense attorneys were collecting bigger fees [by trying them]," the source says. That ended up being unfounded because all the defense lawyers in the cases at issue were privately hired, the source says.

The grand jury investigating Willis did not return an indictment against him by the end of its term in December 2009. And to quell any lasting taint that Roach's probe might have spread, it went further by issuing a report.

In the brief statement, the jurors wrote that nothing that happened in Willis' court could in any way be construed to be a crime. "While Judge Greg Willis may have run his court in a manner that is different than another judge may run theirs, that is not a crime and should not be viewed as one," they said.

Roach declines to discuss the Willis grand jury or his successor. "I don't have an opinion on him at all," he says.

With no damage inflicted, Willis won 65 percent of the vote in the three-candidate March Republican primary and 73 percent in the November general election. He took office the first of the year.

Looking back, criminal defense attorney Deric Walpole wished he hadn't avoided what might have been a caustic conversation with Chris Milner, then one of Roach's top assistants. Milner had taken an interest in a misdemeanor case Walpole was defending arising from "an old man's dispute with a bank."

Rather than drop off a discovery motion in the case with Milner on a Friday afternoon, Walpole went to another prosecutor working in the court where the case had been filed. His earlier conversation with Milner had been contentious, so he was trying to avoid a bit more unpleasantness, he recalls.

Within two hours of Walpole filing his paperwork, records show, Milner went to work unsealing an unrelated year-and-a-half-old case that Walpole had defended. His purpose: to pursue a felony criminal charge against Walpole.

"With me, it wasn't anything political. It was personal. It was petty. I'd ticked them off," Walpole says. "And if it's something they could have convicted me on, they never would have let it go."

On December 11, 2003, Walpole was indicted and arrested on a charge of tampering with a government record, a state jail felony for which he could have been locked up for two years.

The alleged offense involved a motion he had filed in a hard-fought aggravated assault/family violence case he had defended. He failed to have an affidavit to the motion notarized before he filed it with the court. Several days later, when it was brought to his attention, he had a court clerk notarize the document, which was already in brads in the court file and had the earlier time stamp on it. "For that I was charged with, let me read it, 'with an intent to defraud or harm, intentionally impaired the verity of a governmental record,'" he says. "That's just bullshit."

The charge caused a lot of worry for his wife, who was eight months pregnant at the time, Walpole adds. But his law partner offered him a free defense. He got the case dismissed in early 2004, before it went to trial.

Felony prosecutions against two other defense attorneys for what were widely seen as petty offenses involving routine legal matters led to an air of intimidation. And Milner, who declined to return several phone calls seeking comment for this story, gained the reputation as Roach's unchained attack dog.

"They were just warming up on me," Walpole says. "It started with filing bullshit cases on lawyers, and they just kept ramping it up until they started going after judges and clerks. I don't think any of those people did anything wrong."

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec