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How mistakes by state and local prosecutors can lead to unfair trials

The lessons of Corey DeWayne Williams's case.

Corey Williams, right, after his release Tuesday morning from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. To his left are Amir Ali and Blythe Taplin, two of his lawyers. (Courtesy of Amir Ali)

Monday brought heartening news from Louisiana for advocates of the proper administration of criminal justice: The district attorney for Caddo Parish has forthrightly decided not to defend in the U.S. Supreme Court the murder conviction of Corey DeWayne Williams, who was a severely intellectually disabled 16-year-old when he was charged with robbery and murder.

But the lessons to be learned from Williams’s case must not be lost just because it won’t move forward to the Supreme Court.

Williams was convicted after prosecutors improperly failed to provide his attorneys with recorded witness statements that could have been used at trial to undermine the testimony of key prosecution witnesses, including the only person who claimed to have seen Williams shoot the victim — a man who went by the nickname “Rapist” and shared in the proceeds of the robbery, whereas Williams did not. The recorded statements, which Williams’s attorneys learned of only long after trial, also suggested that Williams may have been set up by others to take the blame. In other words, the concealed statements were material — had they been provided to the defense, Williams might have been acquitted.

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

Before the district attorney changed positions, we were privileged to file an amicus brief in support of Williams’s petition for Supreme Court review on behalf of 44 former prosecutors. This group included former U.S. attorneys general, former U.S. deputy attorneys general, former U.S. solicitors general, multiple former U.S. attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys, other former high-level Justice Department officials and numerous former state prosecutors. Some of us served under Republicans and some under Democrats, but we are all united in the belief that prosecutors must take a broad view of their responsibility to disclose to criminal defendants information that is exculpatory (meaning it suggests the person is not guilty) or impeaching (meaning it undermines the prosecution’s evidence). This responsibility arises from the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution and was memorialized by the Supreme Court in the seminal case of Brady v. Maryland, which requires prosecutors to disclose material exculpatory and impeaching evidence. But how are prosecutors to know what is material?

Prosecutors nationwide have taken considerable heat over alleged “Brady violations” since the 2008 trial of former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), after which a special prosecutor determined that two of the trial prosecutors had intentionally concealed documents that would have helped Stevens defend himself against false-statements charges. That case led the Justice Department to revamp its policies to require prosecutors to take a broad view of materiality and err on the side of disclosing information, even if the information itself might not be admissible at trial. The policy, which applies to all federal prosecutors, recognized not only that it’s sometimes difficult to assess the materiality of information before trial, but also that inadmissible information may lead to admissible evidence. Since these policy changes were implemented in 2010, federal prosecutors have had to undergo mandatory yearly training to ensure their understanding of what’s expected of them by the courts and the public.

I sentenced criminals to hundreds more years than I wanted to. I had no choice.

Unfortunately, the federal government’s policies do not apply to state and local prosecutors, some of whom take a far narrower view of what is material. That is what happened in Caddo Parish. Prosecutors there argued that they didn’t have to provide the recorded witness statements to Williams’s attorneys, because those statements were merely “speculation” and “opinion” and that, regardless, Williams had confessed to the murder. Never mind that Williams had just turned 16 and was so intellectually disabled that he sucked his thumb, urinated on himself and was known in the past to take the rap for others. And never mind that Williams “confessed” only after initially denying having shot the victim. When reviewing the case many years after the trial, the Louisiana court, compounding the prosecutors’ mistakes, evaluated each of the witness statements individually, contrary to the Supreme Court’s teaching that alleged Brady violations must be assessed by the collective effect the withheld information might have had on the verdict.

To be clear, prosecutors are often not acting in bad faith when they fail to disclose information later determined to be material. After all, defense attorneys rightly don’t have to share their strategy with prosecutors in advance; and prosecutors in cases less extreme than Williams’s might fail to recognize that a specific piece of information could support the defense theory. This is especially so when the prosecutor, based on the evidence accumulated, is so convinced of the defendant’s guilt that it is easy to “explain away” any information that could be to the contrary. Inconsistencies between witness statements, for example, can seem immaterial in the face of other evidence, such as a confession, even if there may be reason to doubt the reliability of the confession.

It’s also true, especially in state and local prosecutors’ offices, that caseloads are high, resources are low and there’s tremendous pressure to obtain convictions for what are often street-level violent crimes. Prosecutors may receive little or no training on what Brady requires and how to determine what information is material. And a prosecutor’s ability to comply with her Brady obligations is in large part dependent on information provided by police, who themselves may not be adequately trained to understand their obligation to tell the prosecutor when they learn of something that could tend to suggest that the charged defendant may not have committed the crime.

I’m a public defender. It’s impossible for me to do a good job representing my clients.

All of these are reasons that Justice Department policy and Supreme Court cases urge prosecutors to err on the side of disclosure in close cases. As the 44 former prosecutors who signed the brief supporting Supreme Court review of Williams’s case argued, a prosecutor’s goal is not only to strive for a fair trial, but also to protect public safety by ensuring that innocent people are not convicted while the guilty go free. This can’t be accomplished by taking a narrow view of the obligation to disclose information that is favorable to the defense, as the Caddo Parish prosecutors did. We’re, of course, gratified that the district attorney has agreed to resolve the case in a way that will allow Williams to be freed from prison immediately by accepting a guilty plea to lesser offenses — hardly a vindication of his due process rights, but understandable to obtain his freedom in these tragic circumstances. But the mistakes made by prosecutors in this case must not be repeated in Louisiana or anywhere else. Justice demands no less.