On September 17, 2008, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Williams v. Allen, 542 F.3d 1326 (11th Cir. 2008), vacated the death sentence of LDF client, Herbert Williams, who had spent almost 20 years on Alabama’s death row. LDF litigated the case with co-counsel from Holland & Knight LLP. Former LDF Assistant Counsel, Miriam Gohara, argued the case before the 11th Circuit.
The 11th Circuit held that Mr. Williams was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel during the penalty phase of his capital trial because his trial attorneys failed to fulfill their constitutional duty to investigate, develop, and present evidence of the extreme abuse and neglect Mr. Williams suffered as a child at the hands of his parents. During the penalty phase, Mr. Williams’ attorneys presented only one witness who offered a wholly incomplete portrait of his childhood. LDF demonstrated that trial counsel could have presented the sentencing jury with evidence establishing that Mr. Williams’ early years were rife with abuse –he was beaten with hands, fists, belts and electrical cords; his father threatened the family with weapons; he was routinely without food and clothing; his parents neglected his basic hygiene and medical needs; and he was permitted to roam the neighborhood unsupervised. The 11th Circuit concluded that trial counsels’ failure to present this information at the penalty phase was particularly damaging because, even without the evidence of abuse, 9 of the 12 jurors voted against the death penalty – a majority decision that the trial judge overrode to impose a sentence of death. Under these circumstances, the court found a reasonable probability that the unpresented evidence of Mr. Williams’ abuse would have made a difference between a life and death sentence and that Mr. Williams was denied his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel.
In addition to the issues regarding the adequacy of Mr. Williams’ trial representation, LDF argued to the 11th Circuit that the lower district court erred in denying Mr. Williams the opportunity to present his claim that his trial prosecutor improperly used his peremptory challenges to exclude prospective jurors on the basis of race. The district court had ruled that this claim could not be heard in federal court because Mr. Williams had not adequately raised it in the state courts. The 11th Circuit, however, agreed with LDF and concluded that federal court review was warranted.