The Fear Factor
By Miles J. LeBlanc
Working in a courthouse can be dangerous. Disgruntled litigants pose a risk to judges, attorneys, and courthouse staff. Still, one would not expect an attorney, and a former justice of the peace no less, to go on a murder spree targeting courthouse workers. But that is the incredible true story told by Kaufman County District Attorney Erleigh N. Wiley in her book, A Target on My Back: A Prosecutor’s Terrifying Tale of Life on a Hit List (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017). Wiley chronicles her experience as a former Kaufman County Court at Law judge who found herself on a kill list fiendishly prepared by Eric Williams, a former Kaufman County justice of the peace.
On March 30, 2013, Williams shot and killed Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, at their home. Two months earlier, Williams murdered Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse, as Hasse was walking to the Kaufman County courthouse. The backstory of what precipitated the murders, and why Wiley found herself as a target, forms the spine of the book.
Williams was elected as a justice of the peace in 2010. In 2012, he was charged, indicted, and convicted of felony theft for stealing Kaufman County computer equipment. That conviction resulted in his removal as a justice of the peace and suspension of his law license. Hasse and McLelland prosecuted Williams in the theft case.
Compared to Hasse and McLelland, Wiley’s connection to Williams was peripheral but nonetheless important. Years earlier, Wiley had confronted Williams about overbilling Kaufman County for legal services as an ad litem attorney in Child Protective Services cases. Williams responded by taking himself off the list of approved ad litem attorneys, thereby eliminating a significant source of income.
After the McLelland murders, Eric Williams was a prime suspect but had not yet been arrested. Wiley was placed under 24-hour guard by federal agents who were stationed inside her house to protect her and her family. After much thought, she applied for Kaufman County DA, a position for which she was well-qualified after having served as an ADA in Dallas County. She received then-Gov. Rick Perry’s nomination and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on April 17, 2013.
Once Wiley became DA, she eventually decided to recuse herself from handling the capital murder case against Williams. The case was tried by special prosecutors on a change of venue in Rockwall County. Wiley testified against Williams during the punishment phase of the trial. Wiley’s book ends with Williams’ capital murder conviction and death penalty sentence.
Wiley’s book is competently written, and the narrative moves briskly, but it is not an entirely smooth ride due to spotty proofreading in the first nine or so chapters. Wiley does a fine job weaving into her narrative interesting insight about her personal history as a black, Catholic, Republican woman serving as an elected official in a rural North Texas county. She is proud that Chief Justice Carolyn Wright, the first black woman to serve in that capacity on the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas, swore her in as DA. Wiley is forthright in expressing her appreciation of Rick Perry, who she finds to be charismatic and who makes her feel “warm and fuzzy.” Finally, her book is seeded with wry observations. For example, referring to her initial reticence to say an extemporaneous prayer in her courtroom when Hasse was murdered, she wrote: “I’m Catholic. We don’t pray spontaneously and certainly not aloud.” Overall, A Target on My Back is a strong debut for Wiley.TBJ
MILES J. LEBLANC
a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, is assistant general counsel to the Legal Services Department of the Houston Independent School District. His public-sector law career includes serving as an assistant district attorney in Taylor County; a law clerk for Judge Jorge A. Solis of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas; an assistant attorney general in the General Litigation, Consumer Protection, and Administrative Law divisions of the Office of the Texas Attorney General; and in-house legal counsel to the University of Houston and Houston Community College.