48 Hours Mystery: Judge's split-second decision changes trial outcome for Charlene Hill

Charlene Booking
Charlene Hill

(CBS) If you watched the last "48 Hours Mystery" about the case of Charlene Hill, you know that her future and her freedom came down to a split-second decision by Texas Judge James Shoemake. She was on trial for the second time for fatally shooting her husband Danny - she claimed, in self-defense. Her first trial ended in a mistrial and everyone including the judge, the defense AND the prosecution was afraid the second trial would end the same way.

I talked to the judge about the pressure he felt and the pressure he exerted to get a plea deal. You had to be there to feel that pressure at the time. Neither side was sure how it was going in the jury room. The prosecution and the defense started talking after the jury failed to reach a verdict by the end of the first day of deliberations. At least they THOUGHT the jury hadn't reached a verdict. In fact, the jurors had voted to convict Charlene Hill but decided to sleep on their decision and vote one more time the next morning.

Watch now: Showdown in the Bedroom
Video: Hear more from Judge Shoemake

The bailiff said to me, "someone was looking over" Charlene Hill and she was right. When the jury came back the next morning, one of the jurors had a family emergency and had to be excused. An alternate was sent in but that  also meant the deliberations had to start all over again.

That gave the lawyers more time to reach a deal. On the second day of deliberations, knowing the jury could come back at any minute with a verdict,  the two sides agreed if Charlene Hill would plead guilty to murder, she would not go to prison.

We watched as Charlene's lawyers tried to convince her to take the deal. The only place they could do it was in the court cafeteria which is behind a glass wall. We could see Charlene's pained expression as she heard their arguments and finally see her say "okay."

That is when the judge's job got really complicated. A bailiff tapped him on the shoulder and told him the jury had a verdict. He had to decide right then if he should accept the verdict or let the deal go forward. He had never been a position like this and I'm willing to bet very few judges have. I asked him if he was ever trained for something like this and he said they never taught anything like this in 'judging school.'

I'll bet they didn't!

He let Charlene plead guilty with seconds to spare. The jury's verdict was guilty and if Shoemake had decided to accept it before the deal was done, he probably would have had to sentence Charlene Hill to prison.

I saw the judge again a little while later. He was presiding over more run of the mill trials such as burglaries, drug cases and others. He seemed to welcome the return to the routine. However, part of him seemed to miss the excitement of the Charlene Hill case. It was clearly the least routine trial he'd ever presided over.

  • Richard Schlesinger

    Correspondent, "48 Hours," "CBS Evening News"