Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Capital Petitioner Denied Relief

Williams v. Trammell, 2015 WL 1600424 (4/10/15) (Okl.) (Published) - Oklahoma death sentence affirmed. The 10th holds it was reasonable to conclude there was sufficient evidence that under Oklahoma law Mr. Williams committed malice aforethought murder under the aiding and abetting theory, i.e., that he had the intent to kill and he knew his colleague in the armed robbery also had the intent to kill. Oddly, the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals ("OCCA") overruled prior precedent requiring those elements. But it decided in the alternative that there was sufficient evidence of the previously required elements. So there was no due process, retroactivity problem with affirming a conviction based on previously undisclosed elements. The 10th found troubling the OCCA's new aiding and abetting definition that seemed to eliminate the need for mens rea. When addressing the old elements, Oklahoma decided it didn't matter whether Mr. Williams was the one who shot the person that died or that he intended for that particular person to be killed. It only mattered that Mr. Williams intended to kill someone during the robbery and he knew his cohort intended to kill someone. The 10th was cool with this. There was fair warning that the OCCA might make such a decision. It was not unexpected because up until Mr. Williams' appeal it was not clear one way or the other. There was sufficient evidence that Mr. Williams and his cohort jointly planned to rob the bank and to kill whoever stood in their way. That was enough for a conviction. It was unlikely Mr. Williams was ignorant of his cohort's intent to kill, given Mr. Williams' obvious intent to do so. The result of the OCCA's decision was reasonable, the 10th holds, even though its reasoning "was not altogether clear, accurate or comprehensive." It was good enough for the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).

With respect to the ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims, the OCCA's decision was not a "model of clarity." But that's okay under AEDPA. Deference was owed to the OCCA's broad statement that Mr. Williams' claims "did not rise to the level of ineffective assistance of counsel under the Strickland standard." The 10th couldn't tell under which prong the OCCA decided the question. But deference was still owed. Mr. Williams' lawyer had said in an e-mail he "pops valium like candy just to face the day." But this did not mean Mr. Williams was completely deprived of counsel. The 10th had to look at each alleged act of deficiency and decide if it met the two prongs of Strickland. There was no need for an evidentiary hearing to determine why Mr. Williams' lawyer did what he did at trial. Under the performance prong, objective reasonableness is the standard. The lawyer's subjective reasoning doesn't matter. The OCCA could reasonably conclude counsel was not deficient for failing to object to evidence of Mr. Williams' possession of a stolen watch. That evidence was insignificant compared to the evidence of other prior crimes Mr. Williams had committed. Plus counsel used Mr. Williams' general thievery to explain why he had a wad of cash the day of the robbery. Counsel could have also thought if he objected to the watch testimony it might bring attention to it and the jury might think Mr. Williams had something to hide. Of course, this "logic" would preclude counsel from objecting to anything. It was reasonable for counsel not to object to unflattering photos of an apartment, post-autopsy photos of the victim and detailed testimony by the physician of the treatment of the deceased. They were probative of identifying Mr. Williams as the robber, of his intent to kill and the risk of death to others, respectively. Counsel's failure to object to speculative lay testimony about the cause of injuries to Mr. Williams and testimony about a witness's recanted report of Mr. Williams' admissions were not sufficiently prejudicial and were maybe even helpful to the defense. It was reasonable for counsel not to be ready to cross-examine about a prior inconsistent statement because there was only a remote possibility the witness would change his version of events. So defense counsel should feel no need to carry to the courtroom all those pesky and burdensome prior statements. The 10th refused to address counsel's failure to object to prosecutorial misconduct because Mr. Williams was not specific enough about what conduct by the prosecutor he found to be problematic.

On the penalty phase front, the 10th found Mr. Williams was raising a different complaint than what he raised in state court. He now contended trial counsel should have prepared the testimony of a particular defense expert witness better. In state court he alleged counsel should have called other witnesses. The 10th holds that this amounts to an incurable procedural default. Mr. Williams could not now go back to state court and raise the issue because of Oklahoma's successive petition bar. While Oklahoma does make exceptions to that bar for certain issues, the 10th decided the chance of the state courts making an exception for Mr. Williams' particular issue, which the 10th thought was not very compelling, was so slim it wasn't worth giving Mr. Williams an opportunity to try and raise it now.. It was not necessary for the 10th to be 100% accurate about its prediction about what the the courts would do. Trial counsel's failure to call other witnesses was not prejudicial enough because, with one exception, they would not have testified to anything different than did the two witnesses trial counsel had called: an expert and Mr. Williams' mother. The 10th says the only new testimony would have been from Mr. Williams' uncles who would have testified to how horrible it is to be in prison and how prison can reform someone. The 10th thought such testimony didn't present anything particularly novel and was more likely to be harmful because it would remind jurors that Mr. Williams' closest family members are convicted felons. All of these decisions regarding Mr. Williams' counsel claims were made without any court, state or federal, holding an evidentiary hearing.

Judge Gorsuch concurred. He thought the OCCA's discussion of the elements of aiding and abetting murder suggested strict liability might trigger the death penalty in the future. The judge felt this suggested just selling a gun to someone who later used the gun in a murder might warrant the death penalty under the OCCA's formulation. If this is what the OCCA really meant, the judge says, then it would be contravening Supreme Court law. The judge then extolls the virtues of requiring mens rea. He concurs with the majority because it seems as though the OCCA did issue an alternative holding under a conception of aiding and abetting liability that included a sufficient men rea element.