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Watson v. Johnson

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Beaumont Division

July 27, 2017

ALTO V. WATSON, III
v.
JERRY JOHNSON

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RON CLARK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Petitioner Alto V. Watson, III, proceeding pro se, filed this petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

         Factual Background

         Petitioner filed this petition challenging his conviction in the 252nd District Court of Jefferson County, Texas in cause number 12-14962. On April 1, 2013, petitioner pleaded guilty to theft pursuant to a plea agreement and was later sentenced to five years of deferred adjudication community supervision. The Ninth Court of Appeals summarized the facts surrounding the plea and sentence as follows:

In 2012, Watson was indicted in four separate cases for felony theft. In early April 2013, Watson reached a plea agreement with the State in cause number 12-14962. Watson's plea agreement had several material conditions, including a requirement that the court would place Watson on probation in cause number 12-14962, a requirement that the theft charges against Watson in cause numbers 12-14963, 12-14964, and 12-15663 be dismissed, a requirement that Watson pay “up front” restitution to the individuals who were the victims of his four alleged thefts, and a requirement that Watson resign his license to practice law. While the terms of Watson's plea bargain were subject to Judge [Layne] Walker's approval, several details of the bargain, such as the exact conditions the trial court would impose on Watson through the community supervision order, were left to Judge Walker's discretion.
Shortly after Watson entered into his plea agreement with the State, Judge Walker conducted a hearing to decide whether he would approve the proposed bargain, which required three of the cases of theft to be dismissed. During the hearing, Watson stated that he was guilty of the charges that were alleged by the indictment in cause number 12-14962, that his plea was made freely and voluntarily, and that he had read, understood, and signed the written plea admonishments that related to his plea. Watson advised Judge Walker that he understood he would be required to resign his license to practice law as a condition of the agreement, but the record indicates the resignation was to occur after Watson had paid restitution to the various individuals identified in the four indictments as the persons from whom he had allegedly stolen money. Near the end of the plea hearing, Watson requested that Judge Walker approve the agreement. In response, Judge Walker pronounced that the plea agreement was acceptable to the court, and he advised Watson that he would determine at a later date the period Watson would be required to be on probation. Judge Walker did not comment on what other conditions he might decide to impose on Watson when rendering the community supervision order in cause number 12-14962; nonetheless, under Watson's agreement with the State, these details were left to Judge Walker's discretion. When the hearing concluded, Judge Walker stated: “I will see you back here on sentencing day.”
In late May 2013, before the sentencing hearing occurred, Judge Walker learned that Watson had been arrested for allegedly burglarizing a habitation. In June 2013, the grand jury indicted Watson for entering a habitation owned by A.A., without her effective consent, with the intent to commit assault. Judge Walker allegedly contacted A.A. and her fiancé, BB., witnesses to the burglary, the day after the alleged burglary occurred. According to Watson, he was unaware of Judge Walker's contact with A.A. and B.B. when Judge Walker presided over several hearings that occurred after the date of the alleged burglary. Judge Walker's decision to contact A.A. and B.B., and Judge Walker's failure to disclose this information to Watson, serve as the factual background for Watson's complaints that Judge Walker should not have presided over any of his criminal cases.
Watson's sentencing hearing in cause number 12-14962 occurred in August 2013. Near the beginning of the sentencing hearing, Judge Walker was advised that Watson had not paid the restitution amount required by his plea agreement. Judge Walker was also advised that Watson, as of the hearing, had also not resigned his license to practice law. Even though Watson had not fully complied with the requirements of his written plea agreement, Judge Walker honored the agreement, and placed Watson on community supervision for five years. Under the community supervision order in cause number 12-14962, Judge Walker ordered that Watson pay restitution in the amount of $29, 320 to the victims of his four alleged thefts, and he ordered that Watson serve 180 days in jail, with the term to begin ninety days after the date of the sentencing hearing.
In his brief, Watson argues that the up-front sentence constituted an upward departure from his plea agreement. However, during the sentencing hearing, Watson did not complain that the up-front sentence was a condition that did not comply with the terms of his written plea agreement, that the up-front sentence rendered his guilty plea involuntary, or request that he be allowed to withdraw his plea. During the hearing, Judge Walker explained why he had decided to impose an up-front sentence under the circumstances presented in Watson's case, explaining than an up-front jail sentence was required because Watson had “stole[n] money from [his] clients.” Several days after the sentencing hearing, Judge Walker dismissed cause numbers 12-14963, 12-14964, and 12-15663, honoring the terms of Watson's plea agreement with the State.
In November 2013, Judge Walker held a hearing to enforce the community supervision order's up-front jail condition. Following the hearing, Watson was taken into custody; however, two days later, Judge Walker allowed Watson to post a $500 bond; after posting bond, Watson was released from jail. During the November hearing, Judge Walker dismissed cause number 13-17023, the case that concerned the alleged burglary of A.A.'s home, which was not an agreed requirement based on Watson's plea agreement with the State in cause number 12-14962.

Ex parte Watson, No. 09-15-00333-CR, 2016 WL 908258, at *2-4 (Tex.App.-Beaumont Sept. 14, 2016, pet. ref'd).

         Petitioner filed a state application for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to Article 11.072 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. The trial court, with a new judge presiding over the habeas proceeding, denied relief. On September 14, 2016, the Ninth Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.

         The Petition

         Petitioner raises three grounds for review. First, petitioner contends the trial judge should have recused himself or been disqualified from presiding over petitioner's criminal case because the judge initiated ex parte contact with the victims of a different crime that took place after petitioner pleaded guilty. Petitioner contends his guilty plea was involuntary because he was unaware of the ex parte contact when he pleaded ...


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