Clinton Young is suing a prosecutor who simultaneously worked for judges presiding over his cases.
This story was produced in partnership with The Texas Observer.
In July, Clinton Young celebrated his 40th birthday. It’s a milestone when most people realize their youth is behind them and they are firmly an adult. But Young’s birthday was different, since he spent nearly all of his adult life on Texas’s death row.
Young has maintained his innocence in the 2001 murders of two men on opposite sides of Texas. The shocking misconduct that came to light in his case—a prosecutor from the Midland County District Attorney’s office that handled his case secretly served as a clerk to county judges who presided over his trial and appeals—led to his conviction being overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2021.
On Monday, Young brought a federal civil rights lawsuit in the Western District of Texas against two former Midland County DAs, as well as another prosecutor involved in his case and Midland County itself for violating his right to a fair trial.
“Honestly, they stole 20 years of my life from me,” Young says. “I just want them held accountable.”
In 2001, Young was just four months past his 18th birthday when he was involved in a methamphetamine-fueled spree that resulted in the murders of two men, Doyle Douglas and Samuel Petrey, and the stealing of their vehicles. Young was with at least two other men during the spree, David Page and Darnell McCoy.
Young has maintained that he was present during the deadly trip, but he didn’t shoot anyone. Page testified against Young—something Young’s lawyers argue happened in exchange for a lighter sentence and that wasn’t disclosed by prosecutors at trial. Young was convicted of two capital murders, one that took place in Midland and another that happened in Harrison County, in 2003.
In 2017, Young came within eight days of execution before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed it on the basis of inconsistencies in Page’s testimony and new DNA evidence linking Page to gloves used at the crime scenes.
Then in 2019, it became clear that the problems in Young’s case were even more extensive.
Midland County District Attorney Laura Nodolf recused herself from Young’s case, and reported to the court that a prosecutor in his case, Ralph Petty, had simultaneously worked part-time for the trial judge as he helped to prosecute Young.
In 2021, Jessica Priest, then of USA Today, reported that Petty prosecuted at least 355 defendants while performing legal work for multiple judges in Midland County. “You don’t have to be a lawyer to know that this is wrong,” Allison Clayton, deputy director of the Innocence Project of Texas, said at the time.
Young’s new federal civil rights suit claims that Petty’s misconduct was condoned by two previous district attorneys in Midland County, Al Schorre and Teresa Clingman. In 2001, when Petty was hired under Schorre to be an assistant district attorney, his employment contract stated that Petty “shall be permitted to continue the performance of legal services for the District Judges of Midland County, Texas and perform such work for the said District Judges as they shall desire and be paid for the same as ordered by the District Judges.”
Petty played multiple, conflicting roles in Young’s case: He was part of the legal team that prosecuted him for murder, and also later argued against Young’s subsequent writs and appeals. At the same time, he was paid to advise and draft opinions for the district judge who ruled on those same appeals.
Alexa Gervasi, Young’s lawyer in the civil suit, has argued that was an impermissible and illegal abuse of power. “No one has more power than a prosecutor to take away a person’s liberty, and to allow what happened here to go without accountability, whatever that looks like, but without a court saying, ‘You violated Clint’s constitutional rights and that’s wrong,’ …. it’s self-perpetuating injustice,” Gervasi said. “The brazenness of all of Midland County—it’s an entire county of government officials signing off on this constitutional violation year after year after year for decades. It’s mind-boggling.”
Gervasi says that part of the motivation for the new civil suit is that so many people besides Young were affected by the misconduct at the Midland DA’s office and few have been able to seek justice.
Young himself argues that locals apparently saw nothing wrong with Petty’s dual roles for the judges and the DA. “I mean, it was so common in Midland, people saw it as normal; therefore, it was accepted,” Young said. “That says something about your character, right? It says that you’re willing to cheat and break the rules—by any means necessary, you’re willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish your goal of convicting somebody.”
Last year, Midland County native Erma Wilson filed a similar civil rights suit against Petty, Schorre and Midland County. In 2000, Wilson was arrested for drugs she says were not hers. Her felony conviction ended her lifelong dream of obtaining a nursing license. Wilson’s suit alleges that Petty invoiced judges for work on her case while simultaneously advising fellow prosecutors on her case. Wilson’s suit was dismissed in October, but remains on appeal in the Fifth Circuit.
Young spent nearly 20 years in solitary confinement before being released in early 2022, after his convictions and death sentence were overturned. Since then, he has been working in the oilfields in and around Texas, and close to his mother near Longview, where he grew up. He also works with a foundation established in his name in 2014 to help people wrongfully convicted of capital murder in Texas. “I pay my bills, I work, I’m a good neighbor—all I want is to just live my life,” Young said.
But Young’s case is not over. In August 2022, Young was re-indicted for the same 2001 murder of Doyle Douglas in the east Texas county of Harrison, where one of the murders was committed. This time the Texas Attorney General’s office will be prosecuting the case, and is again seeking the death penalty.
Gervasi said she filed the civil lawsuit within days of the statute of limitations expiring his civil rights claim because Young had been worried that the state would retaliate in his criminal case. Ultimately, “Clint wants to take the risk,” Gervasi said. “In his words, you know, what more can they do to him? They’re already trying to kill him.”
When Petty’s misconduct first came to light in 2019, he gave up his law license in lieu of disciplinary action. But the punishment seemed light, given that he had already retired. One of the judges involved in Young’s case has died, but multiple other Midland County judges who likely hired Petty remain on the bench. There was no review of the hundreds of cases tainted by Petty’s actions, and many others who are still incarcerated and want to pursue a review of their case are hampered because they can’t afford an attorney and aren’t entitled to an appointed counsel for appeals. Young and his attorneys say they hope their lawsuit finally brings accountability to Midland County’s criminal legal system.
“Clint lost his entire young adulthood and growing up experience. And the growth and the relationships that people go through in our 20s and in our 30s, it’s a heavy and beautiful and complicated experience that’s part of being alive and of being human. And that was taken from Clint,” Gervasi said.
Young turned 40 this summer while on a job in South Texas. To him, it was “just another day.” Since his release from prison in 2022, he says he celebrates holidays more for his loved ones; for him, holidays are full of memories of just how many he missed.
“He doesn’t really want to celebrate his birthdays because to him, it’s just a reminder of how much time he has lost,” said Merel Pontier, the legal director of Young’s foundation. “So we don’t give him balloons with the numbers four and zero, because that is only going to be painful.”