Wanda Holloway Trial: 1991
Wanda Holloway Trial: 1991
Defendant: Wanda Webb Holloway
Crimes Charged: Solicitation of capital murder and solicitation of aggravated kidnapping
Chief Defense Lawyers: Troy McKinney and Stanley Schneider
Chief Prosecutors: Mike Anderson and Casey O'Brien
Judge: George H. Godwin
Place: Houston, Texas
Dates of Trial: August 23-September 4, 1991
Sentence: 15 years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine (later overturned)
SIGNIFICANCE: The case of the "Texas Cheerleader Mom" was one of the most sensational trials of the 1990s.
On January 30, 1991, the people of Channelview, Texas, learned that one of their neighbors had been arrested for trying to hire a contract killer. If the crime itself was not shocking enough, the identity of the suspect, her target, and her motive seemed incredible. Wanda Webb Holloway stood accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill the mother of her daughter's rival for selection to the junior high school cheerleading squad.
The novelty of the charges against the 37-year-old made her case an international media sensation well before her trial began. Holloway allegedly wanted to dispose of Verna Heath, whose daughter Amber had twice been chosen as a cheerleader over Holloway's daughter, Shanna. Prosecutors charged that Holloway had asked her former brother-in-law, Terry Harper, if he could hire someone to kill Verna Heath, presumably to traumatize Amber enough to make her forgo her cheerleading activities. Harper claimed that he had initially brushed aside her request, but later mentioned it to his brother Tony, Holloway's former husband and Shanna's father. Tony Harper insisted that Terry report the incident to the authorities. Although incredulous at first, Houston detectives wired Terry Harper with hidden recording devices. When Holloway and Harper met again, the tape was rolling and enough evidence was gathered to prosecute.
Tapes Lead to Conviction
The trial began on August 23, 1991. Prosecutors called upon school administrators, who testified that Holloway had taken her daughter's rejections0 from cheerleading far less gracefully than Shanna had. A high school friend of Shanna's brother, Shane, recalled that Mrs. Holloway once asked him if he would kill Verna Heath.
The most damaging witness for the prosecution was Holloway herself, whose voice was recorded during her meetings with Terry Harper. HollowayWith Harper on the witness stand, prosecutors played the conversations recorded by the Houston police. The tapes revealed Holloway's obsessive hatred of Verna and Amber Heath. She agreed to the price of $2,500 that Harper told her a fictitious hit man would charge to eliminate Verna Heath—$5,000 less than the asking price for killing both mother and daughter.
"You want her dead?" Harper asked.
"I don't care what you do with her. You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years," Holloway snapped. "I want her gone." Holloway gave Harper a pair of diamond earrings as partial payment for the deadly contract.
The defense countered that Harper had plotted with his brother Tony to gain custody of the divorced couple's teenagers. Ironically, this theory was proposed in court by Terry Harper's wife, Marla. Her rambling testimony for the defense, however, merely convinced observers that both her first and second marriage to Harper were acrimonious, drunken disasters. The defense also tried to cast doubt on Terry Harper's veracity by making his police record an issue. These attacks were blunted by the prosecution's opening statement and Harper's own eager testimony, during which no secret was made of his checkered employment history and arrests for driving while intoxicated, disturbing the peace, and drug possession.
When Wanda Holloway took the stand in her own defense, she admitted that she had unwisely said many angry things about the Heaths. She tearfully insisted that the plot to murder Verna Heath had been Harper's idea and that she had not backed out of the plan because she was afraid of him. Under cross-examination by the prosecution, however, she admitted that she had never informed the police about what she claimed were Harper's harmful intentions.
The jury was unconvinced by her histrionics. They found Holloway guilty on September 3 and recommended a sentence of 15 years in prison, intentionally choosing the same number of years she had blithely suggested that Verna Heath might be forced to spend in Cuba. Holloway was also fined $10,000. Despite this attempt at poetic justice, Holloway spent less than a day behind bars. The jurors were unaware that Texas law allows a felon sentenced to a term of 15 years or less to post an appeal bond, making a conditional release possible. Holloway made her $75,000 bond and was free almost immediately.
Plea Agreement Ends Second Trial
The case did not end there, however, and the next twist was even more astonishing. The defense petitioned for a new trial, claiming that Holloway's conviction—her entire trial, in fact—had been invalid. Her attorneys correctly claimed that one of the jurors had been technically ineligible for jury duty because of a felony drug arrest. During the jury selection, Daniel Enriquez had truthfully answered yes when asked if he had been involved in a criminal case, but the judge incorrectly assumed that Enriquez had served his sentence. Furthermore, he had not responded when the judge asked if any of the prospective jurors were on probation, for Enriquez had served on a different jury several months earlier before a judge who had assured him that his legal problems did not render him ineligible for jury duty. Although observers suspected the defense of knowing the truth about the juror's ineligibility all along, the result was the same under Texas law. The entire Holloway trial and its verdict were voided. She was granted a new trial on November 8.
Holloway's peculiar celebrity continued while she awaited retrial. Two madefor-television films were aired about the case, "Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story," and a tongue-in-cheek HBO production, "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas CheerleaderMurdering Mom."
Eventually, the justice system got around to confronting Holloway with her responsibility for the crime she had planned.On September 9, 1996, a month before her second trial was to begin, she pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Lawyers on both sides were dissatisfied with the sentence. Holloway's attorneys continued to insist that their client was being jailed unfairly, while prosecutors were irritated by the fact that she could be paroled after serving only six months. The Heaths, who were initially content with the sentence, were less comfortable when the prosecution's prediction came true. After spending half a year in a state prison, Holloway was placed on probation for the remainder of her sentence and ordered to serve 1,000 hours of community service. She was freed and immediately disappeared from the headlines.
"I think it was probably a case of a mother trying to live her life through her daughter," said George Helton, one of the detectives whose investigation led to Holloway's arrest. "Reasonable people like you and me can't understand how in the world cheerleading can be so important, but I think these people are just a bubble off."
Suggestions for Further Reading
Balleza, Maureen. "New Trial for Woman Convicted in Plot against Daughter's Rival." New York Times (November 9, 1991): A8.
Maier, Anne McDonald. Mother Love, Deadly Love. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1992.
Suro, Roberto. "Verdict Is Guilty in Cheerleading Trial." New York Times (September 4, 1991): A18.