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Suzanne Wooten

Other Bribery Exonerations
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On March 4, 2008, Suzanne Wooten won the Republican primary election for District Court Judge in the 380th judicial district in Collin County, Texas. She defeated incumbent Judge Charles Sandoval—the first time an incumbent judge had lost an election in Collin County history.

The following day, Judge Sandoval filed a complaint with the Collin County District Attorney’s Office, alleging Wooten, a 39-year-old attorney, had cheated on campaign financing to win. Sandoval believed Wooten had spent at least $100,000 on radio advertisements, but her campaign finance reports didn’t list the spending or source of funds to pay that amount. The complaint prompted a lengthy investigation, which was ultimately taken over by the Texas Attorney General’s office.

Winning the primary was tantamount to winning the election—there was no Democratic candidate. Accordingly, in the meantime, Wooten was sworn in as Sandoval’s successor.

More than two years later, on October 10, 2010, a grand jury indicted Wooten, her media consultant, and two alleged campaign donors on charges of bribery and engaging in organized criminal activity.

The prosecution alleged that David and Stacy Cary had given $150,000 to Wooten’s campaign manager, James Spencer, to bankroll her election so that when Wooten was elected, she would rule favorably on a case involving the Carys.

The indictment charged that beginning in 2007, David and Stacy Cary plotted with Spencer because Judge Sandoval had made adverse rulings in a child custody dispute involving David Cary and his ex-wife, Jennifer, following their 2004 divorce.

In 2006, the couple had reached a mediated custodial agreement for their twin girls, who had special education needs. However, a social services study later report raised questions about the agreement due to “difficulties that have surfaced with a number of the professionals that have worked with this family,” as well as a tense relationship between the parents.

In December 2006, Sandoval held a hearing and named Jennifer the sole managing conservator. He declared that David Cary was unable to work effectively with therapists, counselors, and school officials, and was failing to “share the rights, powers and duties to co-parent and cooperatively raise the children.” David was allowed custody on just three weekends a month, and ordered to pay $30,000 a year for each child’s education fund and $416,543 for Jennifer’s attorney’s fees.

In 2007, Judge Sandoval ruled that one of David Cary's motions was filed “frivolously or designed to harass” his ex-wife. He ordered Cary and his lawyer to pay $50,000 as a sanction plus $14,500 for his ex-wife's attorney fees.

In 2010, after Wooten took over Sandoval’s cases, David Cary petitioned to reopen the custody case. Wooten recused herself and Judge John McCraw from Dallas was selected to take over the case. After several hearings, McCraw set aside the sanctions order and ultimately, McCraw ordered that David Cary have primary custody.

In July 2011, the prosecution told Wooten’s lawyers that they would dismiss the charges if Wooten resigned, agreed to never again run for public office, and pled guilty to a misdemeanor election code violation. Wooten declined the offer.

Wooten, the Carys, and Spencer were then re-indicted. They each were indicted on the original charges, plus additional charges of money laundering and tampering with a government record. Prior to trial, the defense sought to dismiss the charges, contending that Texas law exempted political contributions from the bribery statute unless there was an “express agreement” between the parties—Wooten and the Carys. The motion was denied.

Wooten, who was suspended with pay, went to trial in Collin County Criminal District Court in November 2011. Among the prosecution witnesses was Daniel Dodd, chairman of the Collin County Democratic Party. Dodd said that when he became party chairman in 2007, he learned that Wooten was considering running for judge as a Democrat. He said he told her that a successful campaign would cost about $100,000 and that the party could not give her any money.

Dodd testified that he subsequently got a call from Spencer asking how to reach Wooten. Dodd said Spencer said that if Wooten were to consider running as a Republican, he could obtain the $100,000 for her campaign.

The prosecution presented records of the checks Stacy Cary wrote to Spencer totaling $150,000. Records also showed that Spencer paid for campaign expenses out of the money he received from the Carys, and billed Wooten’s campaign for the expenses as well for his media consulting services.

Spencer billed Wooten for $110,341 for his services that included radio advertisements. Her campaign, to which she lent $33,000, spent $125,000 overall. Sandoval, meanwhile, spent $43,000. Wooten won with 57 percent of the vote. According to Spencer, the money he received from the Cary’s was for separate consulting work he was doing for them.

Wooten denied the charges and noted that the first time the Cary case came before her, she recused herself. She denied any knowledge of any relationship between the Carys and Spencer. Wooten maintained that her campaign merely paid bills submitted by Spencer for his services.

During closing arguments, Assistant Attorney General Harry White told the jury that Wooten was part of “a combination” that illegally generated money for her campaign. He said Wooten wanted to be a judge for the prestige and for the distinction of being called “your honor.” He ridiculed Wooten for being “stupid…if she was on trial for stupidity, she would be convicted.”

Wooten’s attorneys, Peter Schulte and Toby Shook, accused the prosecution of engaging in a vindictive witch-hunt to appease Judge Sandoval. “She had a target on her back,” Shook told the jury.

On November 22, 2011, the jury convicted Wooten of all the charges. On November 28, 2011, after a recess for the Thanksgiving holiday, the jury returned for a sentencing hearing. However, the prosecution and defense reached an agreement in which Wooten agreed to waive her right to appeal the verdict. In return she would be sentenced to 10 years of probation, a $10,000 fine, and 1,000 hours of community service.

In June 2012, Stacy Cary was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 30 days in jail, a $10,000 fine, and probation for 10 years.

In February 2013, Spencer pled guilty to one count of engaging in organized criminal activity, one count of bribery, and one count of money laundering. Five other counts of bribery were dismissed. He was sentenced to 100 days in the Collin County Jail, probation for 10 years, a $10,000 fine, and 1,000 hours of community service.

In April 2013, a jury convicted David Cary of all charges. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

In August 2014, the Fifth District Texas Court of Appeals upheld Stacy Cary’s convictions. However, Justice Kerry P. Fitzgerald dissented, saying that “with respect to the bribery charges at the heart of this case, this case is most unusual because the State’s evidence is not merely insufficient—it affirmatively negates an essential element of the bribery charges and proves appellant not guilty.” Justice Fitzgerald said that the remaining counts would fail as a result.

In March 2015, the Fifth District Texas Court of Appeals reversed David Cary’s conviction with that same reasoning. The court ruled that the prosecution had presented insufficient evidence that a crime had occurred and ordered David Cary acquitted.

The prosecution appealed the ruling in David Cary’s case to the Texas Court of Appeals. Stacy Cary’s attorneys filed a similar appeal of the ruling in her case. On December 14, 2016, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals handed down unanimous rulings in both cases—affirming the reversal of David Cary’s case and reversing Stacy Cary’s convictions. Both were ordered acquitted.

On May 10, 2017, Schulte, Wooten’s attorney, filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus on Wooten’s behalf seeking to vacate her convictions and a declaration of actual innocence. On May 24, 2017, Collin County District Judge Andrea Stroh Thompson granted the writ and declared Wooten factually innocent.

In 2018, Wooten filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from the prosecutors who handled the case.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/19/2018
Last Updated: 8/23/2018
State:Texas
County:Collin
Most Serious Crime:Bribery
Additional Convictions:Conspiracy, Other Nonviolent Felony
Reported Crime Date:2009
Convicted:2011
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:Probation
Race:White
Sex:Female
Age at the date of crime:40
Contributing Factors:
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No