Prosecutors withheld key evidence in disabled man’s murder conviction. Will SCOTUS act?

Key exculpatory evidence was withheld from his attorneys.

Corey Williams at the time of his arrest in 1998 (Photo provided by his attorneys)
Corey Williams at the time of his arrest in 1998 (Photo provided by his attorneys)

Shortly before he was convicted of murdering a pizza delivery man, according to his attorneys, Corey Dewayne Williams was “an intellectual disabled 16 year-old child” who “still sucked his thumb, urinated himself on an ordinary basis, and regularly ate dirt and paper.” As a child, he was known to eat lead paint chips — one expert witness said that Williams had “the most extreme case of lead poisoning I have ever seen.” In his neighborhood, “he was known to be a ‘duck’ or what one might refer to as a ‘chump,’’ always willing to take the blame for things he did not do.”

As the Supreme Court acknowledged in 2014, intellectually disabled people are “more likely to give false confessions,” and this is especially true if they are subjected to coercive tactics. Williams was convicted largely based on his own confession, which police obtained at 8:30am the morning after the murder — after questioning him for hours throughout the night. After taking responsibility for the homicide, Williams did not appear to understand what he had done. He told the officers that he was “tired” and that he was “ready to go home and lay down.”

Indeed, the facts of Williams v. Louisiana are so extraordinary that they sound like they were invented by a failed fiction writer. The prosecution’s star witness was a man whose street name was “Rapist,” and who was almost certainly involved in the murder itself. One witness told police that it “don’t make any sense” to conclude that Williams was the murderer, but prosecutors never shared this testimony with Williams’ attorneys. Another said that he’d seen Rapist with the murder weapon, but this information wasn’t shared with Williams’ lawyers either.

During the investigation, police repeatedly stated that they thought that Rapist and two other men were responsible for the murder, and that these three men had agreed among themselves to “blame it on Corey.” Again, this information was never shared with Williams’ lawyers.

The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to take up Williams’ case. Louisiana’s courts refused to grant him a new trial, with one judge asserting that the fact that the police themselves seemed to doubt that Williams was the murderer doesn’t matter because Williams “confessed.”

The central questions in Williams revolve around the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland. Under Brady, the Supreme Court explained in a more recent case, “the State violates a defendant’s right to due process if it withholds evidence that is favorable to the defense and material to the defendant’s guilt or punishment.” Evidence is considered material, moreover, if “there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

Applying this precedent, a prosecutor violates Brady if it was reasonable to believe that the defense could have built a stronger case, had they been able to avail themselves of withheld exculpatory evidence, and that this case may have been strong enough to convince a jury.

One piece of good news for Williams is that, in their petition asking the Supreme Court to take up this case, his legal team makes an extraordinarily strong case that this matter is worthy of Supreme Court review. Under the Supreme Court’s rules, the Court is especially likely to hear a case when it presents a legal question that federal appeals courts or state supreme courts have disagreed about. Among other things, Williams’ lawyers identify two such splits in this case.

The first is that the state courts concluded that some of the evidence the prosecutors refused to turn over was not material because it was not, itself, admissible at trial. But even if it is true that defense attorneys couldn’t have presented to the jury evidence that witnesses and the police both speculated that Williams could not have been the murderer, defense counsel almost certainly would have expanded their investigation had they known about this evidence, and they may have been able to use the hidden evidence to attack the credibility of the state’s witnesses — including Rapist.

In any event, there is a well documented split among lower courts about whether inadmissible evidence can be deemed material. As one federal court explained in 2003, “the circuits are split on whether a petitioner can have a viable Brady claim if the withheld evidence itself is inadmissible.”

There’s a similar conflict as to “whether courts should consider facts discovered post-trial under Brady.” Although Williams is intellectually disabled, courts did not determine that he was disabled until after his conviction. (If courts aren’t allowed to consider the fact that Williams is intellectually disabled, his confession carries far more weight than if they are — and this means that any new evidence pointing to his innocence is less likely to be material if courts can’t consider his disability.)

So Williams has a very good shot of making it to the Supreme Court. But a more important question is what the Court will do if it takes this case. The Roberts Court is notoriously conservative, so there is always a danger when someone with a criminal conviction brings their case to the Supreme Court’s attention.

Nevertheless, Williams has reason to be hopeful. Six years ago, in a case that, if anything, involved a less striking violation of Brady than Williams’, the Supreme Court voted 8-1 to toss out a Louisiana conviction. The oral argument was a disaster for the state. At one point, Justice Elena Kagan asked the lawyer defending the Brady violation whether her office considered “just confessing error in this case.”

She may have the opportunity to ask that question again in Williams.