On November 12, 2009, Herbert Williams was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Mr. Williams’s death sentence last year after finding that his trial lawyer failed to provide effective representation because he did not investigate or present powerful evidence of abuse and psychological trauma at trial.
Herbert Williams was 19 years old when he was charged with capital murder. His lawyer presented only one witness, his mother, at the penalty phase of his trial. The jury recommended a life-without-parole sentence, but the Mobile County trial judge overrode the jury and sentenced Mr. Williams to death.
At a postconviction hearing before the same judge, EJI attorneys presented evidence from Mr. Williams’s family members and a psychiatrist, who testified about the constant violence, cruelty, and deprivation in Mr. Williams’s childhood home. Mr. Williams and his siblings were beaten with belts and electrical cords. His father sexually abused family members and threatened them with guns and knives.
Throughout Mr. Williams’s childhood there was not enough food and no one to look after his basic hygiene and medical needs. Mr. Williams, the psychiatrist testified, “never had effective parents.” These conditions created an “extreme, brutalizing exposure to trauma.”
The state trial court found that this evidence would have made no difference at sentencing, but the federal appeals court disagreed, finding that it “surely would have been relevant to an assessment of Williams’ culpability, particularly in light of his age and lack of prior criminal history.” The appeals court found that Mr. Williams’s trial lawyer ignored red flags that would have prompted a reasonably competent attorney to seek out more information.
Mr. Williams was represented at the Eleventh Circuit and at his resentencing hearing by Miriam Gohara and George Kendall, who took the case when they were lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Mr. Williams’s resentencing to life without parole leaves 200 people on Alabama’s death row. Alabama has had the nation’s highest per-capita death sentencing rate for six straight years. Alabama executed six people this year, putting the state second only to Texas in number of executions.