In a rare piece of good news these days, Take Care contributor Amir Ali and his team at the MacArthur Justice Center, in partnership with the Promise of Justice initiative, managed to secure the release of Corey Williams. Corey is an intellectually disabled man who has been wrongfully imprisoned for two decades based on a false confession he made when he was 16, as well as a slew of egregious prosecutorial misconduct.
The case rightfully received a good deal of coverage, likely because of the stunning cert petition the team put together, as well as a remarkable amicus brief on behalf of 40+ career prosecutors and DOJ officials (of many different stripes), all of whom attested to how wrong and out of line the prosecutors’ conduct in Corey’s case was. This was the intro to the cert 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.
For the good news, I would encourage you to read Amir Ali’s Twitter thread documenting the moment Corey was able to walk out of prison. For the bad news (or really, just some reasons to pause over it), read on.
I want to clarify that nothing I am about to say suggests that Corey and his lawyers were wrong to take the deal that they did—far from it. Indeed, part of my point is that they had a litany of good reasons to do so.
What was the deal that led to Corey’s release? In order to secure Louisiana’s agreement, Corey agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter and obstruction of justice. That’s an injustice in and of itself: If, as all of the materials about the case suggest, someone else shot the murder victim, Corey shouldn’t have had to admit that he did. The “obstruction of justice” charge is even more of a slap in the face—the basis for the charge is, apparently, Corey having made a false confession after hours of interrogation. (Remember Atkins v. Virginia and subsequent cases underscored “that a person who is intellectually disabled carries a heightened risk of unwittingly confess[ing] to a crime that he did not commit.”) And because Corey pled guilty to crimes related to the offense he was convicted of, Corey will be ineligible to receive any compensation from the state for his wrongful conviction. He’s left to start over, on his own and with the grace of others, at 36 with criminal convictions and two decades in prison. That’s not exactly the pinnacle of justice.
So why take the deal? To begin with, the odds of certiorari are low, even with a strong petition. Even if the Court were to grant certiorari and conclude there was a Brady violation, that would take additional time and could lead to further litigation once the Court sent the case back to the Louisiana courts (prosecutors could decide whether to retry Corey, among other things). But most fundamentally, how do you expect a person who has been imprisoned for two decades since they were sixteen years old to gamble on their odds to go free at 36? It’s hard to imagine something the state couldn’t have extracted in exchange for that bargain, even though Corey should never have been in that position to begin with.
One concern (and there are many) with the asymmetry in bargaining power is that it gives Louisiana the ability to select which cases make it to the Supreme Court. Given the option for release (or taking the death penalty off the table), a lot of defendants will understandably find it difficult to say no. That gives Louisiana a lot of say over which cases the Supreme Court hears to determine the scope of prosecutors’ Brady obligations, among other things. The underlying facts of a case matter to the Court, and Louisiana, at the last moment, ruled out the possibility that the Supreme Court would consider one of the more compelling Brady cases that has arisen over the last few decades. Moreover, seeing (and hearing) these cases can color the Justices’ assessment of many other criminal justice issues (including the degree of deference afforded to state court judgments).
By itself, that might be a problem. It is even more a concern given the degree to which Brady, today, is honored more in the breach. It is still more of a concern given the practice in Louisiana, where the state has made (and continues to make) the same wrong-headed arguments it made in Corey’s case in other cases: One, that the state can comply with Brady by providing very general (and sometimes wholly inaccurate) summaries of the exculpatory evidence, rather than disclosing the actual evidence to the defense. And two, that the state doesn’t have to disclose exculpatory evidence provided that, in the eyes of the prosecutor, it wouldn’t have affected the outcome.
That is, of course, not what Brady means. But the Supreme Court does not have and will not have an opportunity to say that so long as Louisiana can buy up sympathetic cases that receive a lot of publicity and that might make their way to the Supreme Court. Without a corrective directive, Louisiana can and will continue to oppose relief in Brady cases, including some, like Corey’s, that have resulted in decades-long wrongful incarceration. And the Supreme Court’s review of a criminal case raising a Brady issue is the only mechanism it might have to correct Louisiana’s Brady practices and incentivize Louisiana to correct its flawed practices. In 2011 (in another case arising out of Louisiana), the Court held that defendants cannot recover damages from state prosecutor’s offices based on the office’s inattention to its compliance with Brady. (To read more about that case, see here and here.)
It is an unqualified good thing that Corey Williams is no longer in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and a crime that Louisiana convicted him of based on severe prosecutorial misconduct. It is also a good thing that the Louisiana prosecutors were willing to concede there “may have been” errors (that’s what the motion said). But there are costs to the criminal justice system of giving prosecutors the kind of leverage that Louisiana had over Corey.
(If you are interested in helping support Corey start his new life, you can contribute here.)