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Legal Defense Fund Persuades Federal Court to Overturn Death Sentence in Alabama Case

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

(New York) — On September 17, 2008, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals granted relief to Herbert Williams, an NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund (LDF) client sentenced to death nearly 20 years ago. Holland & Knight LLP served as co-counsel in the case, and former LDF Assistant Counsel, Miriam Gohara, argued the case. The court declared that Mr. Williams' trial attorneys failed to carry out their duty to investigate and present evidence regarding the extreme abuse Mr. Williams suffered as a child at the hands of his parents. The court also reversed the district court ruling that Mr. Williams had not properly presented his Batson v. Kentucky claim that the prosecutor unconstitutionally struck blacks from his jury.

LDF has represented Mr. Williams since 2002, arguing before the federal district court and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that his trial attorneys had failed to provide the level of defense required by the constitution. During the penalty phase of his trial, Mr. Williams' attorneys presented only one witness, who offered a wholly incomplete portrait of his childhood, which was rife with abuse.

Evidence later uncovered by Mr. Williams' appellate attorneys, who interviewed Mr. Williams' siblings and relatives, presented a completely different picture. The evidence LDF presented to the 11th Circuit, and cited by the court in its opinion, revealed that Mr. Williams was beaten not only with hands and fists, but with belts and electrical cords; that his father threatened the family with weapons; and that throughout his childhood Mr. Williams had inadequate food and clothing, that his parents neglected his basic hygiene and medical needs, and that he was permitted to roam the neighborhood unsupervised.

The 11th Circuit decision noted that the trial attorneys' performance was particularly damaging because this was a case where the jury voted 9-3 for a life sentence, and the trial judge overturned the jury ruling and imposed a sentence of death. Under those circumstances, the court found that the additional evidence could have made a difference. Commented LDF attorney Holly Thomas, "the evidence regarding Mr. Williams' life was there – all his attorneys had to do was ask. We are pleased that the 11th Circuit has affirmed what we have been arguing throughout this case: Mr. Williams' attorneys failed him when they did not do the investigation into his background that could well have prevented a death sentence."

In addition to the claims about Mr. Williams' trial attorneys, LDF had also argued before the 11th Circuit that the district court erred when it denied Mr. Williams the opportunity to present his Batson v. Kentucky claim. The district court found that Mr. Williams' Batson claim was barred because he had failed to adequately raise it in the state courts. The 11th Circuit, however, agreed with LDF, saying that "[a] review of Williams' [state court brief] demonstrates that his Batson argument was broader than the district court's opinion suggests."

Stated LDF President and Director-Counsel John Payton, "Mr. Williams has been on death row for nearly 20 years, in a case where the jury voted overwhelmingly for life. We are thrilled that the 11th Circuit has recognized what should have been clear all along – that Mr. Williams was entitled to have the judge and jury hear all of the evidence that weighed in favor of saving his life."