Ralph Petty was an assistant district attorney for Midland County in Texas for over 20 years. As any prosecutor, he passionately supported the government. However, he was not just advocating for the government. AnyBecause he wasn’t just a lawyer, he could also be an advocate. Petty took off the DA hat every night and entered courthouse to work as a clerk for the same judges he had been trying to get to agree with him day to day.
His unethical side hustle hinged on tipping the scales in the government’s favor, discretely writing opinions and orders that ruled in favor of the prosecution—also known as himself—and accessing materials confidential to the defense. Petty was a de facto judge and prosecutor for over two decades. He also earned $250,000 extra for his dishonest work.
Petty’s incompetence led to the denial of due process rights for more than 300 defendants. Clinton Young from Texas was one of Petty’s first victims. He was on death row since 2003, for a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Young was freed on bail in January, pending the start of a fresh trial.
Yet while Petty may have stolen years off people’s lives—and, in Young’s case, almost sent someone to die—it may be almost impossible to hold him accountable, thanks to assorted immunity doctrines that provide government agents a near-impenetrable shield against facing victims in civil court. It is possible to impanel false testimony, or present fabricated evidence while still being protected by the extra protection provided to prosecutors.
Petty still has a victim. Erma WILSON claims she was wrongly found guilty of drug possession by Petty in a suit filed at the U.S. District Court Western District of Texas yesterday. After declining multiple plea deals and insisting on a trial—something exceedingly rare these days—she received an eight-year suspended sentence. Although she was not sentenced to prison for her 2001 conviction she still feels the impact of it. This is because Texas licensing laws prevent people from being licensed to practice as nurses. Petty was disbarred by the Supreme Court of Texas in 2021 two years after his retirement.
Wilson stated that all he wanted was to make Petty and Midland County’s entire judiciary system responsible so other prosecutors would think twice about violating people’s rights. It is impossible to give back my past 20 years or my nursing career. However, I can make sure that others don’t suffer similar losses.”
It is not clear whether Wilson will be granted the right to present before a jury and ask for damages. This will be difficult for several years as Wilson’s attorneys try to get it denied by a variety of judges.
The absolute protections afforded to job-related misfeasance prosecutors ensure that most similar suits will be dead at their arrival. An example: A federal court shielded District Attorney Samuel D’Aquilla of Jackson, Louisiana, from any civil litigation after he sabotaged a rape case against his colleague in the justice system—then an assistant warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—brought by a woman who alleged the man had brutally raped her multiple times on prison grounds. Alexa Gervasi (an attorney with the Institute for Justice, and Wilson’s lawyer), says that in 99 percent of cases, you can bring in a prosecution as a defendant. This lawsuit seeks change.
It’s possible they might get a shot. They may have a shot. Petty did act as a prosecution. But he was also acting as a lot more—assuming the position of a law clerk. Gervasi states that the case was a step towards ending prosecutorial immunity. This case will show that absolute immunity is not right in all respects. This creates an incentive to commit wrongdoing and violate the Constitution. It is a good idea to abide by the founding charter, especially when there are no consequences.
Gervasi’s defeat of prosecutorial immunity means Wilson and Gervasi will have to overturn qualified immunity. This legal doctrine allows local and state government actors to infringe upon your rights. In 2020, the criminal-justice protests brought up the issue of qualified immunity. This protects police officers who steal, shoot children or destroy innocent property. However, qualified immunity may also be available to prosecutors for acts that fall outside their official responsibilities. AbsoluteImmunity is not valid anymore.
This is a perfect example of how difficult it can be for victims to find any kind of legal recourse when they are subject to the highest abuses of their Constitution rights. Gervasi states, “When you commit a crime there should be punishment.” Rule don’t have any meaning if you do not follow them.