This month the Louisiana Supreme Court will have a significant opportunity to demonstrate whether it has learned the lessons that the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down under Brady v. Maryland, Kyles v. Whitley, Smith v. Cain and Wearry v Cain. Most recently, in Wearry, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a Louisiana capital conviction because the prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence from the defendant. As in the earlier cases of Smith and Kyles, the trial courts and the courts of appeal in Louisiana upheld the defendant’s conviction. In each case, the U.S. Supreme Court corrected an injustice on which the Louisiana state courts had signed off.
The case of Corey Williams presents another example of willful non-disclosure. Perhaps this time the U.S. Supreme Court will not need to intervene. Mr. Williams was just 16 years old, with an IQ of 68, when he was charged with the murder of a pizza delivery man in Shreveport, Louisiana. Mr. Williams’ lawyers did not contest that he had been in the vicinity of the shooting, but presented evidence that he fled when he saw another man fire the fatal shots. His attorneys attempted to argue that the older men who were standing out on the street that night—and who subsequently robbed the victim—were the true perpetrators. As Andrew Cohen of the Brennan Center explained in a 2015 article, the State’s decision to charge Corey Williams with first-degree murder was an odd one considering what the credible evidence suggested about the crime:
All of the physical evidence collected by the police pointed to three other young men. The victim’s blood was found on the sweatshirt of 16-year-old Gabriel Logan. Fingerprints on the murder weapon belonged to his brother, 21-year-old Nathan Logan, who ultimately delivered the murder weapon to the police. The third man, 20-year-old Chris Moore, whose nickname evidently was “Rapist,” allegedly shared in the stolen money taken from the victim, ate some of the pizza the poor man delivered, helped hide the murder weapon, and then evaded charges when he subsequently incriminated Williams. Gabriel Logan was convicted of second-degree murder but Nathan Logan, the man whose fingerprints were found on the murder weapon was never charged.
At trial, the defense unsuccessfully argued that the older men pinned this crime on an intellectually disabled child: “Is it conceivable that Chris Moore, Nathan Logan, and maybe even Gabriel Logan got together and tried to pin the murder on 68 IQ over there?” his attorney asked the jury. The prosecution derided this defense as the greatest conspiracy since the “murder of John Kennedy.” Corey Williams was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death.
While many of the high-profile Louisiana Brady cases—including Wearry—have involved men on death row, Mr. Williams is no longer facing execution. He was taken off of death row in 2002 after then-Judge (now Justice) Scott Crichton determined that Williams is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia. However, like many of those capital cases that have been reviewed by the nation’s highest court, Mr. Williams’s case presents an all-too-familiar tale of an unreliable police investigation and a district attorney who willfully engages in misconduct.
The trial prosecutors did not disclose the tapes of any witness interviews to Mr. Williams’ trial attorney. Although his attorney made multiple requests for these tapes, the prosecutors declined every time. For over a dozen years, the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office denied their existence. In 2015, Williams’ post-conviction attorneys finally gained access to recordings of interviews between all of the key witnesses and the police. These suppressed interviews contradict the trial testimonies of prosecution witnesses, and they indicate that someone other than Williams committed the murder.
In the initial hours of the investigation, the tapes reveal that the police quickly recognized that the older men at the scene likely committed this crime. They were the ones who robbed the victim. They were the ones who split the money. They were the ones who hid the murder weapon and the pizzas. When some of the men tried to blame Corey Williams, the detectives understandably pushed back. “It sounds like to me y’all all decided y’all going to blame it on Corey . . . . That’s exactly what I’m getting,” one detective said. Another asked, “If Corey did the shooting, how in the world is Gabriel and ‘Rapist’ going to walk up with a gun and have you put it somewhere?” A detective also told a witness that his story about Corey Williams’ role in the crime “don’t make any sense.” One witness ultimately divulged that Chris “Rapist” Moore was carrying the murder weapon on the night of crime. Another divulged that Gabriel Logan—and not Corey Williams—had the murder weapon immediately after the shooting. Gabriel Logan’s own brother, Nathan, told police that he believed “Rapist” set up the murder, and Gabriel shot Jarvis Griffin.
But, Corey Williams—a frightened, exhausted, intellectually-disabled kid interrogated throughout the night in only partially recorded interviews—confessed to the crime, and the murder investigation took a hard turn. With this confession in hand, the detectives quickly relied on Chris “Rapist” Moore as an eyewitness, and scrubbed their police reports of any information that would exculpate Corey Williams. Incredibly, Nathan Logan’s statement that he thought that Rapist and Gabriel committed the murder would later be summarized in the police reports as: “Nathan thought that Corey shot the man.”
Mr. Williams’ post-conviction case initially garnered attention in December of 2015 when the district court denied his petition despite the fact that this substantial amount of Brady material called into question the already-weak case made by the prosecution at trial. The district court’s ruling debases the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brady jurisprudence. The court fastened the conviction’s reliability to Mr. Williams’ confession, even though a series of studies have documented the susceptibility of persons with intellectual disabilities and juveniles to falsely confess. The court also found that evidence impeaching Chris Moore was not material because Moore would have simply denied that he possessed the murder weapon if called to the witness stand. The court flippantly observed that suppressed impeachment evidence against another witness was not material because she “was not presented by the State as a wholly credible witness” to begin with.
Earlier this month, the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal issued a one-paragraph ruling that denied Mr. Williams’ writ for review on his Brady claims without any additional explanation of why they did not warrant judicial relief. Evidently, the Second Circuit felt comfortable relying upon the trial court’s decision.
Notably, Hugo Holland, one of the prosecutors in Mr. Williams’s case, has been involved in a number of situations in which his integrity has been called into question. In fact, later this week, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to review another case in which he withheld exculpatory evidence—Brown v. Louisiana (a case in which FPP filed an amicus brief supporting the Petitioner’s request for review).
Now, Williams has asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to determine whether the trial court’s decision in his case can legitimately withstand appellate scrutiny. Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeated indications that it will look over the Louisiana Supreme Court’s shoulder when it comes to Brady claims, one imagines the case will get careful consideration. That kind of consideration is what Mr. Williams deserve. As Andrew Cohen wrote: “The pending appeal represents an early test for him about what justice will look like going forward there. Because whatever it was that Louisiana gave Corey Williams (and the victim in the case for that matter) it sure doesn’t look like justice.”
A quote from Mr. Williams’ lawyer that appeared in a Shreveport Times article last week echoes this theme: “For an intellectually disabled, innocent, teenager to be removed from death row and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, it isn’t a victory—it’s a tragedy every day that Corey remains in prison.”