On September 17, 2008, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Alabama prisoner Herbert Williams’s death sentence because his appointed lawyers failed to investigate and present basic facts about Mr. Williams and his life history, especially the extreme abuse inflicted on him as a child. The court also directed the federal district court to address the merits of Mr. Williams’s claim that the prosecutor unconstitutionally excluded African Americans from his jury.
Herbert Williams was 19 years old when he was charged with capital murder. At the penalty phase of his trial, Mr. Williams’s lawyers presented only one witness: his mother, who briefly testified about her husband’s abusiveness.
Mr. Williams’s jury decided he should be sentenced to life in prison without parole, but the trial judge overrode the jury’s verdict and sentenced Mr. Williams to death. Alabama is the only state in the country that permits standardless judicial override in a capital case.
At a postconviction hearing before the same judge, EJI attorneys representing Mr. Williams presented evidence that there was a family history of incest; he was beaten with belts and electrical cords; his father sexually abused and threatened family members with weapons; his mother physically abused him; and throughout his childhood Mr. Williams had inadequate food and clothing and his parents neglected his basic hygiene and medical needs.
The Eleventh Circuit found that Mr. Williams’s trial lawyers had “an incomplete and misleading understanding of Williams’s life history” because they did not talk to family members other than Mr. Williams’s mother and failed to follow up on red flags that would have led “any reasonably competent attorney” to look for more information. Mr. Williams was represented at the Eleventh Circuit by Miriam Gohara and George Kendall, who took the case when they were lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
The court held that trial counsel’s incomplete investigation and failure to discover powerful evidence of abuse and psychological problems denied Mr. Williams his constitutional right to effective legal representation at trial. The decision highlights the issue of inadequate counsel in death penalty cases in Alabama.
The appeals court also determined that Mr. Williams’s claim that prosecutors illegally discriminated against African American jurors on the basis of race is not procedurally barred and must be reviewed on the merits.