There's an old saying: "There are three sides to every argument - my side, your side, and the truth."
Yesterday's paper reported that the U.S. Court of Appeals had reversed the conviction of Ray Williams on a bank robbery charge. "Dave Bazelon strikes again!" a friend said when he saw the story.
My friend doesn't approve of Chief Judge David L. Bazelon. He thinks Bazelon is too quick to free people my friend considers "guilty as hell."
Here is some of the background in the case. See if you can determine where the truth lies.
On Nov. 19, 1974, two men held up the Public National Bank. Two days later, when detectives showed mug shots to an employee of the bank, she picked out a picture of Williams and said it looked like one of the robbers.
THe next day, other detectives working on an unrelated case entered an apartment occupied by Roland Wolford and his common-law wife, Gloria Williams, and arrested Wolford.
In connection with that arrest, the police searched the apartment. They found a gun of the kind used in the bank robbery and two packets of money that could be firmly identified as part of the loot taken from the bank. Bingo! Wolford was thereupon charged with the robbery of the bank, and he later pleaded guilty to that charge.
Now we get back to Williams. When detectives examined films of the robbery taken by the bank's hidden cameras, they found hundreds of clear pictures - "almost a movie" of the robbery. On 71 frames they found what they considered good pictures of Williams helping Wolford rob the bank. Now they came up with a piece of evidence they thought would tie everything together. Gloria Williams, Wolford's wife, was Ray Williams' sister.
So Williams was brought to trial. The prosecution presented two eyewitnesses who identified Williams. There was testimony that identified a jacket owned by Williams as the jacket worn by one of the robbers. There were those 71 frames of film. And there was the fact that money taken from the bank was found in the home of Williams' sister. The jury voted to convict. Its verdict was appealed.
Bazelon, speaking for the 2 to 1 majority on the Court of Appeals, pointed out, "the jury was never told that the other inhabitant of that apartment had pleaded guilty to the robbery for which Williams had been charged." If the jury had known that, would it have presumed Williams left the money in the apartment? The prosecution hadn't even demonstrated that Williams had access to the apartment.
Former Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, the lone dissenter, said there was no basis for upsetting the jury's opinion that it was Ray Williams whose face appeared so clearly on the bank's pictures. And it was Clark who revealed, "Wolford pled guilty to the robbery, but apparently the government allowed, as part of the agreement accepting the plea, that Wolford would not be required to testify at Williams' trial." Aha!
The jury wasn't told that Wolford had pleaded guilty to the robbery.The jury didn't know that Wolford might have brought the money to the apartment. The prosecution never introduced evidence to show that "Williams and Wolford were co-conspirators, joint venturers, or had any other relationship." And so the case ends with Dave Bazelon seeing one side of it, Tom Clark seeing another side of it, and the jury seeing a third side of it - but not necessarily the truth.
I will express no opinion as to what the truth is in this case. You can make that judgment for yourself if you wish. However I will offer the comment that prosecutors appear to make a lot mistakes in presenting their evidence; defense lawyers pounce on these mistakes as defense lawyers are supposed to do; and courts of appeals have little choice except to free defendants who appear to some people to be "guilty as hell." That much, at least, appears to me to be demonstrable truth.