The certiorari petition in Williams v. Louisiana has already, rightfully, received a fair amount of attention. (Ian Samuel and I discussed it on this episode of First Mondays.) I wanted to offer another take on one of the legal issues in the case.
First, the introduction to the petition:
In January of 1998, Petitioner Corey Dewayne Williams was an intellectually disabled 16-year-old child. He still sucked his thumb, urinated himself on an ordinary basis, and regularly ate dirt and paper. Throughout his childhood, he was hospitalized for extreme lead poisoning, institutionalized multiple times, and placed in special education. In his community, he “was known to be a ‘duck’ or what one might refer to as a ‘chump,’” who was willing to take the blame for things he did not do.
Just three weeks past his 16th birthday, Corey was standing in front of a friend’s house when shots were fired, killing a man who had been delivering pizza. Following the shooting, eyewitnesses saw several older men—and not Corey—steal money and pizza from the man who had been shot. When the police interrogated those men, they implicated Corey as the shooter. Upon being arrested and questioned through the night, Corey gave the police a confession. Oblivious to the significance of what he had just said, Corey told the officers he was “ready to go home and lay down.” Based chiefly upon that confession and using one of the older men as its sole eyewitness at trial, the State convicted Corey of first-degree murder.
Williams raises a “Brady” claim in the petition—he alleges that the prosecution failed to turn over several pieces of exculpatory material it had in its possession, including statements from a witness that it didn’t make sense that Corey had committed the crime, and that the state’s witness “had to” have committed the murder. Because the case is out of Louisiana, the government, in some of the proceedings, raised its typical defense to Brady claims (that it is up to the prosecution to decide whether evidence in its possession would affect the outcome at trial).
In rejecting Williams’ Brady claims, the state courts reasoned that the evidence was not material because (1) some of the evidence would not have been admissible itself (such as the impressions of witnesses) and (2) the evidence would only be material in light of facts determined after trial, specifically Williams’ intellectual disability. (Atkins v. Virginia, the case that held the Eighth Amendment prohibited imposition of the death penalty on persons with intellectual disability, was decided while Williams’ cases was on direct appeal. The Supreme Court of Louisiana remanded Williams’ case in light of Atkins, and on remand concluded that Williams suffered from severe intellectual disabilities.)
When Williams pressed his Brady claim in state courts, he argued that the evidence was material—i.e., it was reasonably likely to have affected the outcome—even though he had confessed to the crime. Williams was also a child at the time of his confession, and as the petition explains, persons with intellectual disabilities are more likely to falsely confess to a crime; indeed, the Supreme Court recognized that fact in Hall v. Florida. The Louisiana courts, however, denied that Williams’ intellectual disability was relevant to assessing the materiality of the evidence and weight of the confession. One court stated: “I don’t find they’re really relevant to the issues at hand, particularly the Brady claims. I just don’t. I just don’t see how it’s relevant.”
Among the legal issues that Williams’ cert petition presents is whether courts can decline to consider post-trial findings of fact when assessing materiality for purposes of Brady. But putting aside that general question, I would think that Williams has a particularly strong claim because here the courts declined to consider post-trial findings of fact that relate to a substantive rule of constitutional law (specifically, what punishments states can impose on persons with intellectual disabilities).
The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana makes that a particularly strong angle for Williams. Montgomery addressed whether states could refuse to give retroactive effect to substantive rules of constitutional law in state post-conviction proceedings. The Court said they could not; that is, Louisiana state courts could not refuse to consider substantive legal rules that are announced post-trial (or, more specifically, post-finality). Substantive legal rules include rules that prohibit categories of punishment for certain persons, and in Penry v. Lynaugh, the Court stated that a rule prohibiting the execution of intellectual disabled persons would be a substantive rule. Thus, Louisiana could not have a rule that precluded defendants from raising Atkins claims in post-conviction review.
But why, then, could Louisiana have a rule that precludes defendants from relying upon findings of fact that are necessary components of substantive legal rules? Prior to Atkins, courts weren’t making intellectual disability determinations in some states, including in Louisiana. Could Louisiana get around Montgomery by enacting a rule that formally allowed defendants to raise Atkins claims but precluded them from relying on any post-trial findings of intellectual disability, even when a defendant’s trial occurred before Atkins, as is the case for Corey Williams? That wouldn’t make much sense, and I don’t think that would be a fair reading of Montgomery.
Williams’ case is one step removed from that hypothetical, because Williams is not trying to rely on a post-trial finding of fact to support an Atkins claim. He is, instead, relying on a post-trial finding of fact to support a Brady claim. But it’s not clear why that should matter for two reasons. One is that here, the post-trial finding of fact affects the likelihood that an innocent person has been convicted. That’s part of the reason why states have to give retroactive effect to substantive rules, and the desire to avoid convicting an innocent person is also the basis for the Court’s second exception to the retroactivity bar (for watershed rules of criminal procedure without which the likelihood of an accurate conviction is significantly diminished). So the rationale of retroactivity rules like Montgomery suggest there could be problems with forbidding defendants from relying upon post-trial findings of fact to support claims that might not themselves be substantive, but nonetheless affect the accuracy of the conviction.
The second reason why that shouldn’t matter is because defendants may need to make other, non-substantive claims in order to prevail on their substantive claims. To understand why, it’s necessary to understand the mechanics of procedural default doctrine: If a defendant didn’t previously make a claim when he could or should have, then the defendant might be precluded from making that claim later on. There are, however, some exceptions to that rule, including where a defendant’s failure to make a claim is because the defendant was denied his constitutional right to effective counsel, or because the prosecution failed to comply with Brady. Thus, in order to have a court hear a “substantive” claim (like Atkins, for example), a defendant might need to establish another claim, including a Brady claim. So the post-trial-findings-of-fact could be necessary to ensure the Atkins claim is heard on its merits.
This got pretty in the weeds, but the basic point is this: If Louisiana cannot preclude defendants from relying on new substantive legal rules that are announced after trial, it also should not be able to preclude them from relying on post-trial-findings-of-fact that serve as necessary predicates for substantive legal rules. And that’s just another reason why the Court should hear Williams v. Louisiana.