Justice delayed or justice denied?
on May 23, 2018 at 6:55 pm
Williams v. Louisiana ended with both a bang and a whimper. Flagged as a “petition of the day” back in April, Williams’ petition sought to have the U.S. Supreme Court review the Louisiana courts’ decision to leave in place his conviction for first-degree murder.
Williams claimed, among other things, that in obtaining his conviction, prosecutors had violated their obligations under Brady v. Maryland to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. Although the prosecutors had provided the defense with summaries of the evidence (some of which were accurate, others not), they had not provided the evidence itself. The state courts, in rejecting Williams’ Brady claim, maintained that the undisclosed evidence would not have affected the outcome of Williams’ trial. The evidence included statements that Williams could not have committed the murder and that the state’s eyewitness probably did. In determining that the evidence would not have affected the outcome of Williams’ trial, the state courts refused to factor into consideration evidence that Williams was severely intellectually disabled. As his petition detailed, Williams, at the time of the crime, was an intellectually disabled 16-year-old child who “still sucked his thumb, urinated himself on an ordinary basis, and regularly ate dirt and paper” and “was hospitalized for extreme lead poisoning, institutionalized multiple times, and placed in special education.” Williams’ intellectual disability was potentially relevant, he maintained, because it undermined the force of his confession, which he gave after being arrested and questioned by police officers. After the confession, Williams told officers he was “ready to go home and lay down,” arguably underscoring a concern the Supreme Court itself had flagged almost a decade ago “that a person who is intellectually disabled carries a heightened risk of unwittingly confess[ing] to a crime that he did not commit.”
Williams’ case, including the cert petition, received a fair amount of coverage. Ian Samuel and I discussed it on this episode of First Mondays, in which we openly mused about how Louisiana could possibly think that the prosecutors’ behavior in the case complied with Brady. We were not alone in wondering that; a remarkable brief by the Georgetown Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection on behalf of 44 former career prosecutors and Department of Justice officials argued that the prosecutors’ conduct in the case had not complied with Brady. The authors of the brief also underscored their argument in a recent op-ed.
After two decades, Louisiana finally saw the light, or at least some of it. On Tuesday, Corey Williams walked out of Angola prison after finalizing a settlement with the state prosecutors in which, in exchange for pleading guilty to manslaughter and obstruction of justice, his first-degree murder conviction and sentence were vacated, and the state agreed to his release. (The obstruction-of-justice charge stems from Williams’ false confession.)
The Williams case raises important questions about the Supreme Court’s docket and litigants’ control over it (particularly some categories of litigants). It’s also reasonable to wonder how the parties arrived at this settlement after contesting it for 20 years. On Louisiana’s side, it’s notable that Caddo Parish, the jurisdiction in which Williams was convicted, recently got a new District Attorney, James E. Stewart Sr., whose 2015 election made him Caddo’s first black district attorney. It’s possible that other DAs wouldn’t have made a deal with Williams, and instead would have stuck with what had been Louisiana’s position for the last two decades. Or Louisiana may have just finally seen the writing on the wall; the agreement goes so far as to say that the DA recognizes that Williams had a “colorable” constitutional claim. The color may have deepened in light of Williams’ first-rate petition for certiorari by the MacArthur Justice Center and Promise of Justice Initiative, particularly when layered on top of the amicus brief and the extensive press coverage of the case. Louisiana may also have thought twice about going to the Supreme Court with another Brady case that might cause a justice to ask pointedly, as Justice Kagan did in 2011, why the state had not just conceded error. (Lyle Denniston described the argument in that other Brady case out of Louisiana, Smith v. Cain, as a “disaster at the lectern.”) Or Louisiana may not have wanted to risk an opinion that expanded states’ Brady obligations in light of the alarming facts of Williams’ case. We will probably never know.
Easier to understand is why Williams agreed to a deal in which he admitted to a crime he has, for decades, maintained he did not commit. Pro Publica did a study on cases in which defendants are offered those kinds of deals; many take them, since certainly and immediately getting out of prison is worth an awful lot. For Williams, the prospect of getting out of prison at 36 was probably too great an opportunity to pass up. The aftermath of one of the Supreme Court’s cases, Schlup v. Delo, provides an anecdote that might help to explain why: In Schlup, the court found that the defendant was “probably … innocent” of the crime he was convicted of, a finding that allowed a court to reach the merits of the defendant’s constitutional claim. After a court later decided that claim and vacated his conviction in light of it, the state elected to retry him. The defendant ultimately pled guilty in order to avoid the death penalty, even though the Supreme Court had found it more likely than not that he did not commit the crime. Williams, at least, got to go free, even though his guilty plea relinquished any hope of obtaining compensation from the state for his wrongful incarceration. Reflecting that reality, Williams’ attorneys have set up a support fund for him, in order to get him off the ground.
Settling cases and eliminating the prospect of certiorari (or the prospect of an unfavorable decision after certiorari) is nothing new. It happened in a pair of Fair Housing Act cases the court attempted to decide before ultimately holding, contrary to many people’s expectations, that disparate-impact claims are cognizable under the act. It has also happened in several bankruptcy cases, including one this past term. Given prosecutors’ leverage and ability to extract concessions from people who are incarcerated (sometimes wrongfully), it’s no surprise that it happens in criminal cases, too.