The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He was 16 when Louisiana charged him with murder. Two decades later, he’s free.

Corey Dewayne Williams, right, after his release Tuesday morning from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, with lawyers Amir Ali, far left, and Blythe Taplin. (Amir Ali)

In January 1998, Corey Dewayne Williams was in the Queensborough neighborhood of Shreveport, La., when a pizza delivery driver was shot and killed.

Williams was an intellectually disabled 16-year-old when the shooting occurred, according to court records. “He still sucked his thumb, urinated himself on an ordinary basis and regularly ate dirt and paper,” his attorneys wrote in a recent court filing. After the shooting, he fled, and when police questioned him about the killing of Jarvis Griffin, the 26-year-old delivery driver, Williams confessed. Then Williams told them he was “ready to go home and lay down,” they wrote.

He was charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to death before later being resentenced to life in prison. On Tuesday, more than two decades after his arrest, Williams walked free from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

Williams’s freedom came through a remarkable turnabout in which Louisiana authorities, having objected to his petitions in court over the years, reversed course and agreed to a settlement. His case had attracted high-profile support, including from dozens of former federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials — among them Michael B. Mukasey, the former attorney general — who weighed in earlier this year.

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Under the terms of the plea agreement, filed in a Louisiana district court Monday, his first-degree murder conviction and sentence were vacated. Williams, now 36, instead pleaded guilty to manslaughter and obstruction of justice and was sentenced to time served.

“This case, for all involved, for a while, has been a heart-wrenching case,” Amir Ali, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, a civil rights law firm that helped represent Williams, said in an interview after a judge approved the agreement. “This was an impossible deal for Corey to turn down. I think, given the circumstances, it was the best possible outcome for Corey.”

Williams’s attorneys had petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, and Louisiana’s response was due in mid-June. Louisiana authorities ultimately decided to end the case rather than defend it before the high court.

In a joint motion filed with Williams’s attorneys Monday, James E. Stewart Sr., the Caddo Parish district attorney, said the state undertook an investigation into the case, reviewing witness statements, transcripts and police reports. They concluded that Williams’s constitutional rights “were potentially violated at his original trial,” the motion states, and asked the judge to vacate his original conviction and sentence.

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In response to an interview request, Stewart had his office send a statement from Suzanne Owen Williams, an assistant district attorney, released Monday.

“Questions later arose about his case, as well as some legal issues, but today it was all resolved by a plea agreement,” she said. Stewart’s office also noted that as part of the agreement, Williams agreed to waive appeals along with potential claims of any civil liability.

Williams had just turned 16 when Griffin was killed. Griffin had delivered pizzas and returned to his car when someone fired shots at his vehicle, according to a summary of the case from the Louisiana Supreme Court. A bullet perforated both of Griffin’s lungs and penetrated part of his heart. After the shooting, someone also took money and pizza from Griffin’s car.

Police spoke to witnesses and were told Williams was the shooter, so they arrested him, court records showed. According to Williams’s attorneys, after the shooting, Williams ran to his grandmother’s house; police found him “hiding under a sheet on the couch,” they said.

Williams initially pointed at one of the other people present, Gabriel Logan, as the shooter. Then, a few hours later, Williams confessed to police. Williams told them he and Logan decided to rob the delivery man, but he opened fire thinking Griffin may have been reaching for a gun, the Louisiana Supreme Court stated.

“I’m tired,” he then told the officers, his attorneys wrote in a court filing this year. “I’m ready to go home and lay down.”

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False confessions have been a recurring feature in many cases involving people who were convicted of crimes but later cleared. Last year, 139 people convicted of crimes were exonerated, and one in five had falsely confessed, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Williams’s legal fight has stretched on while he remained behind bars. In 2002, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed Williams’s conviction but sent the case back to a lower court to determine whether he could be executed. That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing what it called the “mentally retarded” violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. A trial court said Williams fit that definition, so he was resentenced to life in prison.

Williams’s attorneys say the case against him was troubled from the beginning. “No physical evidence” linked him to the killing, they said, adding Griffin’s blood was found on the clothing of Gabriel Logan, the person Williams had initially named as the shooter. Griffin’s money and the stolen pizzas were also found near Logan’s home, they added. (Logan was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life at hard labor without parole, the district attorney’s office said.)

His attorneys also pointed to other issues, saying despite the Supreme Court’s Brady v. Maryland ruling stating that prosecutors have to turn over evidence material to guilt or punishment, Louisiana authorities provided only summaries of interviews with witnesses rather than the complete interviews.

This issue involving Brady was central to the brief supporting Williams’s case filed with the U.S. Supreme Court by the former federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials. In their brief, the 44 former officials — appointed by Republicans and Democratic presidents alike — said they feared “in this case, state prosecutors took an overly narrow view of their Brady obligations.”

These interviews with witnesses, they argued, showed Williams may have been set up, and if the interviews were handed over, “there is a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different,” the group argued in their brief.

There were numerous issues with the case, including the reliance on Williams’s confession, said Mary McCord, visiting law professor at Georgetown University and the former acting head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, who wrote the brief.

“I’m a former prosecutor and certainly have relied on confessions in my career,” McCord said in an interview. “But this is one reason they should be corroborated by other evidence, because there are a number of reasons confessions can be unreliable … and one of the most important reasons is based on intellectual disability of the person making the confession.”

McCord called the case “a travesty” and said she was glad Louisiana did not fight to keep Williams behind bars. She said the only thing that troubles her about this outcome is the Supreme Court will not review the case, which may have given further clarity about the type of information that has to be disclosed. Still, she said, that could have kept Williams locked up for years.

“This is a young man who’s already been locked up for an extended period of time, first on death row for quite some time and thereafter serving a life sentence in Angola, which is a pretty harsh prison environment,” she said. McCord and Douglas Letter, another former Justice Department official who worked on the brief, also wrote more about the case in this Washington Post op-ed.

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A team of attorneys had spent years representing Williams, including Blythe Taplin and Ben Cohen of the nonprofit Promise of Justice Initiative, examining his case, petitioning the courts and working to secure his freedom. The same Louisiana judge who approved the deal freeing him, Katherine Dorroh, had previously rejected Williams’s claims of Brady violations.

Ali, one of Williams’s attorneys, called the case “so clearly a tragedy” and said it was worth accepting the deal — even with the guilty pleas — to free him now. When Williams walked out Tuesday morning, he had spent more of his life locked up than free.

“Corey is just the loveliest, warmest human being you would know,” Ali said. “He was just over the moon to be able to go home. … As you might imagine, after spending 20 years wrongfully behind bars, the prospect of being released is pretty hard to contain.”

This story has been updated since it was first published. While court records said Jarvis Griffin was 23 when he was killed, the Caddo Parish district attorney’s office said coroner’s records and a cemetery marker showed he was 26. 

Further reading:

An innocent man served 17 years. His ‘crime’? Looking almost exactly like the real suspect.

The longest-serving exonerated inmate in U.S. history is getting $1 million from Ohio

After Va. man is exonerated, critics see a broken justice system

Most Americans support the death penalty. They also say an innocent person might get put to death.