Monday, May 28, 2018

Bargaining with the devil

Corey Williams is a free man.

He spent 20 years in the Angola prison in Louisiana for a murder he didn't commit. Back in 1998, Mr. Williams was a developmentally challenged 16-year-old when Jarvis Griffin, a pizza delivery man, was shot and killed while delivering a pizza to a home in Shreveport.

Witnesses reported seeing some older men taking money and pizzas from Mr. Griffin. Those same witnesses said that Mr. Williams left the house empty-handed. Fingerprints on the murder weapon belonged to someone else and blood was found on the clothing of another suspect. There was no physical evidence linking Mr. Williams to the crime.

He was found by police hiding under a sheet at his grandmother's house. He denied killing Mr. Griffin but later, after hours of interrogation, changed his story. His confession lacked corroborating details.

Mr. Williams was convicted of the murder and sentenced to die. That death sentence was overturned by a district judge in 2004 because of Mr. Williams' mental disabilities.

Meanwhile, prosecutors had recordings of witness statements in which police indicated they believed that Mr. Williams was being framed for the murder. Dale Cox, the former Caddo Parish district attorney, argued in 2015 that he didn't have to turn over the recordings because defense attorneys hadn't proven that the recordings were exculpatory.

In the end, 44 former prosecutors and Justice Department officials signed a brief in support of Mr. Williams' claims before the US Supreme Court.

The appeal will never be heard because last week Mr. Williams agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter and obstruction of justice. The murder conviction was vacated and he was sentenced to time served.

On the one hand, we should be happy because an innocent man is now free; on the other hand, he shouldn't have had to agree to a plea deal to gain his freedom. Prosecutors played fast and loose with the rules and didn't hand over evidence that should have been disclosed prior to trial. Of course Mr. Williams couldn't prove anything on the recordings was exculpatory because he hadn't been allowed to listen to the recordings.

This is the problem with Brady material. The evidence is in the possession of the folks who are trying to convict the accused. The defense rarely knows what the state has in its possession if prosecutors decline to disclose it. As an aside, in Harris County (and the surrounding counties), prosecutors have open file policies of varying degrees - though it doesn't stop some evidence from being withheld.

Mr. Williams was forced to plead guilty because of the fear that his appeal would be denied. He was forced to plead in order to gain his freedom so that prosecutors could still point to a conviction in his case and so that the state wouldn't have to compensate him for the time he was locked up.

That was wrong. Once the whole story emerged in this case, the District Attorney should have asked a judge to vacate the conviction and order Mr. Williams freed. But even when the facts and law are on the side of the defendant, the state has the power.

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