Criminal JusticeIssuesJudicialLocal NewsOn This Day 10 Years Ago, a Disgraced East Texas Judge Began His Killing Spree

Eric Williams was sentenced to die by lethal injection, but like many death row prisoners, his case has been delayed by appeals for years.
January 31, 2023
On January 31, 2013, a former Kaufman County justice of the peace shot a prosecutor to death in broad daylight near the steps of the courthouse. Mark Hasse was brutally murdered after he participated in the prosecution of Eric Williams for stealing computer monitors from the county.

Two months later, on March 30, Williams murdered District Attorney Michael McLelland and his wife, Cynthia McLelland, with an AR-style rifle. Williams had barged into the McLellands’ home during the predawn hours. Williams’ wife Kim drove the getaway car after Hasse’s murder.

Though police and others initially believed it was the work of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, it was later discovered that the perpetrator was Williams, who had lost his law license and position as justice of the peace after his conviction on theft charges. Williams, a Republican who defeated a Democratic incumbent in 2010, had also been a member of the Texas State Guard.

According to court documents, Kim Williams testified at trial that her husband was chipper on the morning he killed Mark, and was in similar spirits the day he took the lives of Mike and Cynthia. He had thrown some steaks on the grill that night to “celebrate” the macabre day.

Williams murdered Cynthia McLelland because she witnessed her husband’s murder, per a brief filed in one of his appeals.

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In a bone-chilling threat, Williams called a tip line and told law enforcement, “Do we have your full attention now? Only a response from Judge Bruce Woods will be answered. You have 48 hours.”

“You have our attention. How can the county judge contact you?” a law enforcement officer replied.

“The message through this secure format only. Your act of faith will result in no other attacks this week. Judge Wood must offer a resignation of one of the four main judges in Kaufman, district or county court, list stress or family concerns or whatever else sounds deniable,” Williams said.

“The media will understand. My superiors will see this is a first step, ending our action. Do not report any details of this arrangement. You have until Friday at 4:00 p.m. We are not unreasonable, but we will not be stopped.”

Williams had other people on his kill list, including prosecutor Erleigh Norville Wiley, who is now the district attorney of Kaufman County.

His trial was moved to Rockwall County, where he was found guilty on capital murder charges. The court sentenced Williams to death in December 2014. Kim Williams is serving a 40-year prison sentence as an accomplice.

Kathryn Casey is a true crime and mystery series author from Houston and has written numerous best sellers. She authored In Plain Sight, a deep dive on the Kaufman County prosecutor murders. In fact, Casey is the only one to interview Eric Williams on death row.

In an interview with The Texan, Casey reflected on her time researching the case. When she spoke with Williams, he did not strike her as a serial killer. Then, Casey would remember what he had done.

“Eric had that other side from all along. He said unusual things to people. Once, he said to some of the people he was having lunch with that when he went out he was taking a lot of people with him,” Casey said. “There were people who were nervous around Eric. He had a lot of guns around and he showed them off — he was quite proud of them.”

Casey said that both Hasse and the McLellands were concerned about Williams and how he might respond to being prosecuted and losing his position as a justice of the peace.

“(The McLellands) had both been trained in psychology. As therapists, they were very concerned about Eric. Everybody knew that he had been pushed very far and that he had the potential to strike back,” Casey said.

She added, “When Mark was murdered, Mike McLelland stood over Mark’s body and said Eric Williams had done this.”

In fact, Mark had advised the justice of the peace who succeeded Williams to move his desk away from the window in case Williams opened fire on his office.

When asked if there were any lessons the average person could take away from this case, Casey said the tension between Williams and Kaufman County officials became like an “incubator, where it kept getting hotter and hotter.”

Casey suggested that the case serves as a cautionary tale of how perilous it can be when “law enforcement becomes personal.”

The prosecution of Williams began when he stole hundreds of dollars worth of computer monitors from the county courthouse. However, there was a long history of “bad blood” between Williams and District Attorney McLelland.

“I want to make this really clear — there’s no justification for what Eric Williams did at all, in any way,” Casey said.

She also pointed to Williams’ arrogance and perception of his own intelligence.

“You may think you’re the smartest person in the room, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to be held accountable for your crimes,” Casey said. “(Williams) really believed he was above the law.”

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Williams’ writ of certiorari on May 14, 2018. In his appeal, Williams’ attorneys made broad arguments against capital punishment, which is typical for defendants to do in capital cases.

Representing the State of Texas, Assistant District Attorney Pro Tem Fredericka Sargent lambasted Williams in a reply brief.

“Neither his conviction nor his sentence were the result of anything other than his own actions. Williams is most deserving the death penalty, and this case is not the proper vehicle for making any sweeping changes to it,” Sargent wrote in 2017.

Sargent responded to the arguments Williams made in his plea for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up his case.

“The murders of Mike and Cynthia McLelland and Mark Hasse were an attack on the very criminal justice system that Williams now seeks the protection of, and that he will be seeking the protection of, for the next several years,” Sargent wrote.

She added in the conclusion, “Texas’s death-penalty scheme has been repeatedly identified or upheld as constitutional.”

Almost a month following Hasse’s murder, then-state Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Terrell) filed a bill during the 83rd Legislature to add a provision to the criminal statute dealing with capital murder specifying that killing a prosecutor out of retaliation is a capital offense.

While the bill passed unanimously in the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and was placed on the General State Calendar, it was not considered on the House floor.

For many Texans, capital punishment is rooted in an ancient moral justification. Genesis 9:6 reads, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”

Whether this principle applies in the modern day is debatable, but not for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) on the day Williams is scheduled to die.

In Texas, unlike many other states, the judge in the court where the case was tried — not the governor — decides when a condemned prisoner is put to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Williams’ request for a new trial years ago, and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his petition to hear the case in 2018.

At this point, it would take something extraordinary to convince a judge to spare Williams from the Texas death chamber. However, TDCJ has no execution date listed for the serial murderer. The 422nd District Court in Kaufman could not be reached for more information.

When asked about the victims in the case, Casey said “they were all really good people.”

“Mark was a great guy. He had a lot of friends who really loved him. He was a great prosecutor,” Casey said, reflecting on her interviews with people who associated with Hasse. She added that he “cared about justice.”

Casey said she was able to speak with the McLelland family when conducting research for her book. According to her family, Cynthia had been excited about having grandchildren one day.

“Every year … she made a baby’s quilt and she was so looking forward to grandchildren. Now she has some, and she’s not here for them, which is just horribly tragic,” Casey said.

Mike and Cynthia were both loved and their friends enjoyed spending time with them, she added.

“The families were just devastated by this, as the community was. That small town really suffered.”


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Hayden Sparks

Hayden Sparks is a senior reporter for The Texan and a lifelong resident of the Lone Star State. He has coached competitive speech and debate and has been involved in politics since a young age. One of Hayden's favorite quotes is by Sam Houston: "Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may."