MCKINNEY, TEXAS - For better and for worse. Those were the vows Suzanne Wooten and Wes Wayland took 17 years ago.
They’ve seen each other through the worst of it.
It’s getting a lot better now that the state's highest court has exonerated Wooten, a former judge, of bribing her way to the bench.
Last month, Wooten walked out of the Collin County Courthouse no longer a convicted felon. Friends and family were there as District Judge Andrea Thompson wiped away her criminal history.
It was a day that had been a long time coming.
“One of the things that probably was the hardest for me, that weighed on me the most, was thinking that I would die and our children would have a convicted felon as a mother,” says Wooten. “That’s not the legacy I wanted to leave for our children.”
Wooten first began considering running for judge in 2004. She opted against it at that time because she was pregnant.
She was ready four years later. The couple saved up money for the campaign. They knew it would be an uphill battle against an incumbent judge. No one had ever defeated a sitting district judge in Collin County. Wooten shocked the political establishment when she defeated then-District Judge Charles Sandoval in the Republican primary.
She was sworn in in 2009.
Her win did not go over well with the courthouse powers-that-be, though. In particular, then-District Attorney John Roach, Sr. He was known at the courthouse for investigating his perceived political opponents.
“I was not who they wanted,” she recalls. “[Sandoval] was mad, so he goes over to his friend, the DA, and said 'she must have cheated.'”
On her first day at work, her bailiff and court reporter told her that Sandoval had complained to Roach. She shrugged it off as sour grapes.
A high-ranking prosecutor would come into her courtroom during hearings and just sit and stare, she recalls.
“I would ask him, ‘Is there something you need?' and he would say, 'No,'” she says. “I assume that was for intimidation. I just went on about my business and did my job.”
Wooten would soon learn the intrigue could not be ignored.
That summer, a realtor she had done business with told her he had received a grand jury subpoena. That’s the first inkling she had of a grand jury investigation by the DA’s office into her campaign finances.
Five grand juries would hear evidence in the case. The sixth grand jury indicted Wooten, her campaign manager, a man named Dave Cary, and his wife.
Prosecutors claimed the Carys had funneled $150,000 to Wooten's campaign consultant in exchange for favorable rulings in a contentious child custody case.
“Judge Wooten didn't receive any money and Judge Wooten paid all of her bills, so it was the most preposterous bribery scheme that I had ever seen,” says her attorney Pete Schulte, who has represented her from the start. “It was just a legal fiction.”
There were records showing she paid her campaign consultant for the work done on her campaign. There were no records indicating any money from the Carys ever went to her. Wooten says she did not know the Carys and had never even met the couple.
What’s more, Wooten made no rulings in the case.
She'd recused herself within months of taking the bench. One of the lawyers had been her campaign treasurer. Another of the lawyers had recently served as co-counsel on a case with her. Other lawyers had been avid supporters during the campaign.
“I thought that was the easiest thing to do,” she says of the decision to recuse.
She was out of state at a judicial conference when she got the shocking news that she had been indicted on numerous felonies.
“I’d never even had a traffic ticket on my record, never been arrested, wasn’t much of a drinker,” Wooten says. “It’s just unbelievable.”
Prosecutors offered her a deal. She could resign the bench and plead guilty to a Class A misdemeanor. Wooten refused the offer.
Jurors were not allowed to hear that six grand juries had been involved in the case.
"[Six grand juries] is unheard of,” Schulte says. “The fact that that was excluded gave them a huge disadvantage to understand the real motivation behind this prosecution.”
Still, Wooten was stunned on that day in 2011 when the jury convicted her of nine felony counts.
“I just stood there. I cannot believe this happening,” she says. “I was convicted of making favorable rulings. And everyone stipulated that I had never made favorable rulings on that case because I didn’t preside on that case.”
Prosecutors gave her 10 minutes to decide: Take 10 years of probation and forgo her right of appeal or let the jury decide. She was facing up to 20 years in prison.
“If I didn't have my husband and my children, I'd have said, 'Yeah, bring it. I'll go sit in prison. I'd be fine,'” she says. “But my family would not be.”
Her judicial portrait was removed from the courthouse. Her name was stricken from the county computer system.
“I guess they decided, 'Well, if we take her portrait and throw it in the trash, and we erase all the electronic records, it didn't happen,'” Wooten said.
It took a toll on their family.
Wayland took a job in Houston for three years. Their eldest son changed schools because of bullying. Wooten was barred from school friend trips and PTA meetings. She couldn’t even travel to Tarrant County without permission from her probation officer.
She couldn’t drink. She had to take random drug tests.
“When his mother became very ill and was in his hospice, I couldn’t come visit her without a permit,” Wooten said. “My mother had open heart surgery and had a stroke, and I couldn’t get down there without a permit.”
For Wayland, it was frustrating and painful not being able to protect his wife from what she’s endured over the last seven years.
“That’s who I am,” he says. “I fix things. I couldn’t fix this. I couldn’t protect my family. That’s hard.”
Last year, the Court of Criminal Appeals paved the way for Wooten's exoneration when they threw out the Carys' convictions. Schulte filed a writ of innocence with the appeals court in March.
Wooten recently got her law license back. It had been suspended during the time she was on probation. Having made a living in recent years as a mediator and trial consultant, she's now joining Schulte’s law firm.
When Greg Willis became district attorney in 2011, he eliminated the unit that investigated her. He also instituted a policy that his office would no longer launch investigations. Instead, his office only pursues cases brought to them by a law enforcement agency.
Wooten says the scales of justice are not yet even. She believes there should be reforms to the grand jury process to stop prosecutors from doing what they did to her.
She's planning to sue the people who prosecuted her, contending she was maliciously prosecuted.
“You should not be entitled to do this, to abuse your position of power, to manipulate the system, and honestly, not to just go after people because you don't like them, or they're not the people you wanted,” she says.
Her portrait is back on the wall of the courthouse, hanging beside the man she defeated. Wooten and her husband are going to Paris to renew their vows under the Eiffel Tower.
“She’s special,” her husband says.
“I would marry him every year, anywhere he wants,” she says.
“It’s a date,” he adds.
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