Say “sudden passion” and some might imagine amorous trysts.
Sordid, dangerous liaisons, the kind that often lead to tragedy.
That was the case in the trial of a Texas woman – Frances Hall – involving a meddling mistress and a high speed car chase that ended in murder. But in this instance, “sudden passion” was also the defense used by an attorney with Cody roots to reduce a sentence that might have kept Hall behind bars for decades.
Leigh Cutter, a 2005 graduate of Cody High School, defended Hall, who was facing 5-99 years in prison for the murder of her husband Bill Hall.
Cutter helped Hall receive the minimum punishment of two years.
This gained Cutter national recognition for the successful use of the “sudden passion” defense.
“Never in a million years did I think that I would’ve had such a big role in the trial itself and afterwards with the media,” Cutter said. “I’m just a 29-year-old gal from Wyoming.”
Cutter has been interviewed by “48 Hours” on CBS, NBC’s “Dateline,” Warner Brothers’ “True Crime Daily” and she’s also been contacted by A&E and a couple of other shows.
She had worked on a few murder cases prior to Hall’s, but none had gone to trial. So she was understandably terrified as this case advanced.
“Nothing is harder than representing someone you truly believe is innocent,” Cutter said. “I knew the facts and the science, but you never know who you will get on your jury – deciding your client’s fate and what life experiences they bring into their decision-making.”
Hall was charged with “aggravated assault with a deadly weapon” and “felony murder” for ramming her vehicle into the car her husband’s mistress was driving.
Hall, who had recently learned of the three-year affair, claimed she was being tormented by his mistress.
On Oct. 10, 2013, Hall was leaving a volleyball game when she spotted her husband’s mistress driving past. The mistress was behind the wheel of Frances Hall’s vehicle, a Range Rover.
Hall followed and a high speed chase ensued.
Bill Hall, who was also in the area riding a motorcycle, joined in the chase and collided with his wife’s SUV, killing him.
Since her husband’s death resulted from a chase Hall had instigated, she was charged with murder.
In Texas, if someone is committing or attempting to commit a felony of any kind and someone dies in the proximity of that attempt or commission, that person is charged with felony murder, Cutter said.
“Hall’s murder charge was not a normal one either,” Cutter said. “It wasn’t like she walked in on her husband with another woman and decided to shoot or stab him.”
A jury found Hall guilty and she was facing imprisonment. She was not eligible for probation.
In Texas, once a defendant is found guilty, there’s a second phase of the trial, where attorneys can raise a sudden passion defense. The jury can decide on a minimum sentence of two years to a maximum of 20.
Sudden passion in this case was defined as, “a degree of anger, rage, resentment or terror in a person of ordinary temperament sufficient to render their mind incapable of cool reflection.”
“The sudden passion was actually Frances seeing and desiring to confront this mistress who was making her life hell,” Cutter said.
The jury unanimously agreed it was sudden passion, issuing the minimum sentence for Hall of two years.
The successful use of the sudden passion defense to get a minimum sentence in a felony murder case is rare, Cutter said.
“I haven’t seen it used where someone got the minimum in my research,” she said.
The verdict was bittersweet.
“Ultimately, Frances is like family to me. She trusted me to put on her case and tell her story and she was still found guilty,” Cutter said. “That verdict is something I will be forced to carry with me for the rest of my life.”
The silver lining, however, is that Hall received the minimum sentence.
“I really believe the jury would’ve given her probation if it had been on the table,” Cutter said. “Several jurors were visibly upset and sobbing during the verdict.”
Cutter knew since childhood that she wanted to be a lawyer. She left Wyoming to attend college in Texas after receiving a full scholarship from Texas A&M.
She then attended law school at night in San Antonio at St. Mary’s University while working as a stockbroker by day.
“I spent many nights up late studying, working, trying to figure out how to make everything work to fulfill my dream,” she said.
Growing up in a strict household with rules, she had an understanding and respect for authority and consequences. America is a society based on law and justice, she said.
“I love the fact that I have a role in making this ideal a reality, however small,” she said. “I love what I do and feel blessed that I get to come to work every day and help others when they are facing the most tragic and horrific issues they may ever face in life.”
(Cassandra Sturos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)