Friday, September 12, 2008

Small-town lack of anonymity and bias, big-time consequences

I'm seeing lots of coverage this week of the just-disclosed, long-time romantic relationship between a judge and a prosecutor in Collin County, Texas. Two of the stories are here and here. The affair came to light because one of many cases tried during the period when the affair may have been ongoing were criminal charges against Charles Dean Hood. Hood was convicted of capital murder in a September 1990 trial in which Verla Sue Holland presided and Thomas S. O'Connell, Jr. was the prosecutor. Hood was sentenced to death in the case, but several irregularites -- including this now confirmed intimate involvement between Holland and O'Connell -- have put that conviction in doubt.

The closing paragraphs of the New York Times story about this breach of legal and judicial ethics caught my attention in relation to rurality:

Ms. Kunkle, the court clerk, said that nearly everyone in the courthouse had heard the rumor over the years. She said Judge Holland and Mr. O’Connell were part of a tight-knit legal community that lived in Collin County before its population boomed in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Sometimes the little small-town stuff just doesn’t go away,” Ms. Kunkle said.

That sent me over to the Census Bureau website to see just how rural or nonmetro Collin County and its seat, McKinney, were during the relevant period. (Holland was a district judge there from 1981-1997). Here's the scoop from Publication No. 1990 CPH-2-45 (pages 3 and 83):

In 1980, Collin County's population was 144,576, whereas in 1970 it had been just 66,920. McKinney's 1980 population was 16,256, a modest growth over the 1970 figure, 15,193.

By 1990, Collin County had 264,036 residents, while McKinney had grown to 21,283.

Collin County is now dominated economically and in terms of population by Plano, a Dallas suburb that grew quickly in the past few decades. McKinney, the county seat, is now probably fairly characterized as an exurb. Still, thinking back to the McKinney of a couple of decades ago, when the Holland-McConnell affair apparently began, it's not hard to imagine that it was the talk of the town, or at least the legal community. In light of that, I find it interesting that an investigation was never initiated, especially in light of the number of trials in which the two apparently played their respective roles. Perhaps that failure is attributable to another characteristic sometimes associated with small towns and rurality. I call it the paradox of rural privacy; it is the tendency to mind your own business, even if you know everyone else's.

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