When you birth a story, you never quite know what it will grow up to be.
Some come out screaming and create a brief fuss. Some receive an unexpectedly warm and grateful reception from a devout audience. Some touch you deeply but end up disappearing like a whisper in a cloud of nitro gas at a drag race. And some develop a surprising momentum of their own, reverberating in ways you could never predict.
I wrote “The Most Lawless County in Texas” (D Magazine, October 2022) in an attempt to bring clarity to a complicated tale of injustice in Collin County. By the end, the months-long effort to untangle all of the twisted threads left me sleep deprived and on the verge of panic. When I finally handed the beast of a draft over to Tim Rogers and Zac Crain, I had a few simple hopes: maybe some local lawyers would read it and find value in it. Maybe bringing light to the decade-old actions of a corrupt district attorney’s office could help ensure that the good ol’ boy system wasn’t perpetuated in North Texas. Maybe someone would be convinced to actually look up their judicial candidates prior to walking into the voting booth for the midterm election.
When the story went online toward the end of the October, the first responses I received were from lawyers, public defenders, former assistant attorneys general, and judges from across the state, thanking me for writing it. So, yeah, the legal community seemed to find value in it. But then I started to hear from non-lawyers, not only in Collin County but also in Las Vegas, Florida, Arizona. A 65-year-old California housewife suffering from depression wrote to say the story made her cry but brought her hope. The general manager from an HVAC company thanked me for “piecing together the different narratives into an enjoyable article.” A South Carolinian expat in Hanoi, Vietnam, said he liked the story so much that he looked for more and found my profile of Jazmine Robinson; he offered to take me kayak fishing in Nghe An.
Then, on October 31, Collin County and its current DA, Greg Willis, were sued in federal court for claims of ongoing sexual harassment and retaliation. So, yeah, it turned out the story was still pretty timely and relevant.
And then, over the weekend, I received an email from Brandon Duke, a lawyer at Winston & Strawn in Houston. Just last week he filed a reply brief in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and he cited my story as part of his argument. He wrote:
I wanted to send a quick note about you article on Suzanne Wooten. It was an excellent piece about an unbelievable injustice. In fact, we cited it in our reply brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court as a recent example of why someone might plead guilty to a crime they did not commit. Our case addresses the question of whether the right to exculpatory evidence recognized in Brady v. Maryland applies to pretrial plea negotiations. The other side, Williamson County (another lawless county at least under its former DA), argued that it was unlikely that an innocent person would choose to falsely plead guilty. While the posture of the case is different, your article was helpful to further show that it was not. The Court is set to consider our petition (and decide whether to hear the case) at its December 2 conference.
So, yeah. That’s pretty cool. I’ll put the cherry on top of my legal career (yes, I’m a lawyer) and say I’ve argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, albeit as a journalist.
(And not to split hairs, but Wooten didn’t actually plead guilty. She was convicted by a jury and pled to the sentence, not the crime. But Duke’s argument holds true: innocent people will often choose to be free rather than be right. And the bad actions of bad prosecutors can result in tragic, life-altering results.)