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One-Word Mistake by Judge Nixes Conviction, 50-Year Sentence

By William Peacock, Esq. on October 30, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

I will now explain the presumption of innocence and the people's burden of proof. The defendant has pleaded guilty to the charges. The fact that a criminal charge has been filed against the defendant is not evidence that the charge is true. You must not be biased against the defendant just because he has been arrested, charged with a crime, or brought to trial. A defendant in a criminal case is presumed to be innocent. This presumption requires that the people prove each element of a crime and special allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.

See the problem? "The defendant has pleaded guilty to the charges." Except, this was on the eve of trial. And there would be no trial if he had pleaded guilty. This seems like common sense. Except, as many lawyers have found out, jurors lack common sense.

After closing arguments, during deliberations, the jury sent the judge a note inquiring about the guilty plea. The judge tried to cure his error with remedial instructions and juror polls. But last week, the Ninth Circuit held that the judge's best efforts were not enough, and granted habeas relief to Bryant Keith Williams.

Juror Explains It All

After his mistake was pointed out, the judge "fell on his sword," corrected his instructions, and polled the jurors as to whether they could still be fair and impartial. All said that they could, but two days later, Juror 1 sent the judge a note, explaining the problem with curative instructions for faulty pre-trial statements. Here's an excerpt:

I know common sense says that if the defendant pleaded guilty, then there would not be a trial; and that idea definitely crossed my mind. However, I decided to override that thought due to the fact that the court read that he pleaded guilty, so I thought he was guilty throughout the entire trial. I did not just say to myself, "The judge must have made a mistake, I'll just assume he pleaded not guilty." I did not do this for several reasons:

1. The defense (or prosecution) did not correct you in your error. Since that is a crucial part of the instructions, I would think that someone would have corrected the court's error immediately.

2. You originally said that the case would take 8 days, but then said it would only take a day and a half. I thought that might have to do with the defendant pleading guilty somewhere in between.

3. In my opinion, the defense did not put up that great an effort to offer alternatives to the prosecution's case. To me, another sign that the defendant had pleaded guilty.

What I am saying in telling you these things is this: I went through the entire trial thinking that the defendant had pleaded, and was guilty. I saw everything through that lens.

My God. Maybe he should be a lawyer. (Or a judge.)

Ninth Circuit Reverses It All

Though Williams' appeals were denied throughout the state courts, and habeas relief was denied in the district court, a split Ninth Circuit panel granted him relief because of the judge's error.

The majority, calling the mistake "devastating to Williams," noted that the case was not strong -- it was the victim's testimony supported by a vague recorded phone call that demonstrated that they had some sort of falling out.

"Williams was convicted on the basis of the victim's testimony, which the jury heard while under the impression that Williams had pled guilty -- in other words, while under the impression that he was guilty," Judge John Noonan wrote. "It is, we find, impossible to say that the 'judgment was not substantially swayed by the [trial judge's] error.'"

"Where the judge assigns guilt, even inadvertently, he strips the jury of its fundamental role and subverts the requirement that the jury must confirm the truth of every accusation. [...] The constitutional error is manifest. It was not rendered harmless by the flawed curative instructions."

Judge Mary Murguia dissented, as she would have deferred to the state appellate courts' rulings.

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