Corey Williams, center, with lawyers Amir Ali, left, and Blythe Taplin at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. (Courtesy of Amir Ali)
Opinion writer

There was some good news this week in two cases we’ve been following here at The Watch.

The first is the release of Corey Williams in Louisiana. Williams was prosecuted by Hugo Holland, one of the country’s most gung-ho death-penalty prosecutors. Holland was forced to resign in 2012 for supplying false information on a form to procure a cache of M-16s for an ad-hoc SWAT team he had formed with fellow prosecutors. I wrote a long piece about Holland last year. Here’s a summary of Williams’s case from that article:

Williams has an IQ of 68, and suffers from the effects of severe lead poisoning as a child. When the police came to arrest him for the murder of a pizza delivery man, they found him cowering under a bed sheet. Williams, 16 at the time, was one of four young men at the house. One of the other men’s fingerprints were on the murder weapon. Another had the victim’s blood on his sweatshirt. And yet only Williams was charged with first-degree murder. Holland was the prosecutor.

For the first several hours of his interrogation, Williams maintained that he played no role in the murder, and his account was consistent with all the other evidence. He said he was with the other teens when the others decided to rob the delivery man. Williams said he wanted no part of it. When one of the boys then shot the delivery man, Williams fled in fear.

Yet after six hours of questioning late into the night, and without food, water or sleep, Williams finally confessed. He told his interrogators, “I’m ready to go home and lay down.” As Mark Joseph Stern wrote in 2015 for Slate, before Williams’s confession, the police had already pieced together the most probable narrative for the crime, based on interviews with the other teens and other witnesses. In that narrative, Williams was innocent. Williams’s confession was nonsensical and didn’t fit with the known evidence. But after he gave it, the other teens changed their stories to implicate him. At Williams’s trial, Holland told the jury that for the other teens to have conspired to frame Williams would be the greatest conspiracy since the murder of JFK.

Williams was convicted and sentenced to death in 2000. Because of his disability, that sentence was later changed to life without parole, over Holland’s objections.

For 10 years, Holland had said that the tapes of the interviews with the other teens didn’t exist. Instead, Williams’s attorneys, the courts and the jury that convicted Williams had to settle for summaries of those interrogations provided by the state. But in 2015, Williams’s attorneys finally obtained the recordings of the police interrogations of the other teens. They were damning. They revealed that not only was Holland wrong about a conspiracy, but even the interrogating officers believed at the time that the other teens were framing Williams.

Holland’s team also failed to turn over a host of other exculpatory evidence, including statements from witnesses who saw one of the other teens carrying the murder weapon both before and immediately after the crime; statements from police investigators themselves indicating they believed Williams was innocent and had been set up by the others; and statements that one of the other teens and his relatives had threatened witnesses to change their stories. (Note: In October, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear Williams’ appeal. There was no opinion, although two justices dissented.)

All of that evidence was withheld by the same prosecutor who is now being hired to handle death penalty cases all over Louisiana.

That last line was a reference to the main story of that post: After Holland was fired, he was hired by parishes all over the state of Louisiana on a contractual basis, often specifically to handle death-penalty cases. Within just a few years, his freelancing gigs doubled the salary he was making when he was fired. (Williams’s case wasn’t the first time Holland has been accused of misconduct or of not turning over exculpatory evidence.)

The unquestionably good news is that Williams left prison this week. The bad news is that he did so after accepting a deal that required him to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. It’s completely understandable why Williams’s attorneys negotiated the deal and why he accepted it. Louisiana’s appellate courts are notoriously unfriendly to accusations of prosecutor misconduct. The New Yorker reported that of the 28 death sentences overturned in the state since 1976, 25 were due at least in part to prosecutor misconduct. But only two of those were overturned by state courts; federal courts intervened in all of the others.

This means that while Williams is free, he will also be saddled with a felony conviction. It also means that there will not be an official finding that the state withheld evidence. Nor will this be counted among the state’s many death-row exonerations or its growing tally of exonerations more generally. (Williams was originally sentenced to die. That sentence was revoked due to his disability.)

To be clear, Williams being free is wonderful news. But what he had to do to leave prison demonstrates how even when the criminal-justice system finally admits it got it wrong, it does so in a way that assigns the least culpability possible to the people who are most culpable for the injustice.

The second case showing this is that of John Kunco in Pennsylvania. I’ve been following Kunco’s case for nearly 10 years. As I wrote last week, he was convicted based on testimony from bite-mark analysts that was dubious even in the context of that already dubious field of forensics. The two bite-mark analysts who testified for the state retracted their testimony in 2016. DNA testing done on a lamp cord allegedly used to strangle the victim had already excluded Kunco. Then, last week, Kunco’s attorneys claimed that DNA testing on the rape kit, undergarments worn by the victim and a blanket found at the crime scene would exonerate their client.

Yesterday, a Pennsylvania judge threw out Kunco’s conviction, finding that had the new evidence been presented at trial, the jury likely would not have returned a conviction.

The victims of these injustices go well beyond the wrongly convicted themselves. From the Pittsburgh Tribune:

Loren Kunco was an infant when her father was convicted and said she only learned about the case from her mother, who always believed he was innocent.

She visited her father in prison until the age of 5 but had not seen him since, until Wednesday. She was in court to watch him win his three-decade struggle for freedom.

“I think I always knew he was innocent. The original case file, it’s right in your face that he’s innocent,” Loren Kunco said.

And of course, there’s also the problem that if Kunco is indeed innocent, the real perpetrator either remained free.

Here again, the good news for the wrongly convicted comes with a few caveats. First, the office of Westmoreland County District Attorney John W. Peck has already announced it will appeal the judge’s ruling. That would be an absurd and cruel thing to do. Without the bite-mark evidence, there are only two real pieces of evidence against Kunco. The first is one witness’s claim to have heard him make a sexual comment about vegetables at a party (the victim was assaulted with a cucumber), a claim that was uncorroborated by anyone else at the party. The other piece of evidence is the victim’s alleged identification of Kunco by his lisp. But the victim didn’t identify Kunco’s lisp after hearing Kunco himself talk. She identified him based on a detective’s imitation of Kunco’s lisp. On the other side of the ledger, Kunco had an alibi that was corroborated by the mother of his newborn child and by his landlord. And now there’s the DNA evidence.

More broadly, while this case is yet another example of the utter unreliability of bite-mark analysis, the judge’s ruling will have no effect on the state’s ability to use such evidence in the future. Another Pennsylvania judge approved bite-mark evidence in a separate murder trial just last year.

Again we see in stark detail just how bad the system can be at correcting its mistakes. It has taken 27 years for a judge to finally admit that John Kunco’s conviction was an injustice, and only after DNA testing. But even now, prosecutors still aren’t conceding. Kunco will be free on bail, but the charges still loom over him. Meanwhile, not only has there been no effort to change the procedures that allowed such flawed evidence to be heard by a jury in the first place, the same sort of evidence is still used against other defendants in other trials in Pennsylvania. Our criminal-justice system is terribly bad at admitting and correcting its mistakes. But it’s even worse at learning from them.