By Anna Arceneaux
In 2000, Corey Williams, a Black teenager with an intellectual disability, was tried and convicted in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, for the murder of a pizza delivery man at his friend’s house.
Williams was just 16 years old at the time and due to his disability, still wet himself, sucked his thumb, and ate odd things like dirt and paper. Despite these factors, Caddo Parish prosecutors still sought and obtained the death penalty for Williams, though his guilt was not supported by much of the evidence, which they never turned over to the teenager’s trial lawyers. Williams’ plight is a horrifying example of the awesome power of prosecutors, who can not only take someone’s freedom — but life itself.
Williams wasn’t even a suspect at the outset of the investigation. Rather police officers first focused their attention on two older men, who were present during the crime. Police recorded witness statements on the night of the homicide that were never given to Williams’ defense. On these recordings, one witness told police that he saw a man nicknamed “Rapist” with the murder weapon prior to the homicide. Another witness, the brother of one of the likely culprits, insisted that it would make no sense for Williams to have killed the pizza delivery man, implicating his own brother and “Rapist” instead.
Even when other witnesses suggested to police that Williams was the perpetrator, the police pushed back, as they suspected the older men were pushing these witnesses to frame Williams for their actions. After an all-night interrogation, however, Williams confessed to the murder despite evidence pointing to his innocence. Rather than question the confession due to his youth, obvious disability, and the circumstances under which it was taken, the police stopped investigating the likely culprits and charged Williams. The prosecutors’ decision to then charge Williams with first-degree murder destroyed his life, and the state of Louisiana was set to snuff it out completely.
Thanks to two intervening decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court — first forbidding the death penalty for those with intellectual disability, and later against those who were under 18 at the time of a crime — Williams’ life was spared. But today he still remains incarcerated for life in Louisiana for a crime he almost certainly did not commit.
Prior to his trial, Williams’ defense attorneys asked repeatedly for all information in the prosecutors’ possession that showed their client was not responsible for the crime — information the prosecutors were required to disclose under the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland. The prosecutors were not forthcoming, likely because they knew the information they possessed would undermine their case against Williams.
In fact, they were more concerned with a conviction than justice. Rather than turning over the recorded statements suggesting Williams’s innocence, the prosecution team, led by Assistant District Attorney Hugo Holland, gave the defense summaries of the statements. These summaries grossly misrepresented the witnesses’ accounts and omitted entirely the fact that the witnesses had pinned the crime on the other two men.
Louisiana courts have so far rejected Williams’ Brady claims, finding that the evidence would not have made a difference in his trial in light of his confession. Williams’ attorneys have now asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, which it should.
The plot, however, thickens from there, showcasing the prosecutorial corruption in Caddo Parish.
Several years ago, Holland was forced to resign after he was caught faking documents to obtain M-16 military rifles through a Pentagon program. Yet even after losing his job in Caddo Parish, he continues to try death penalty cases as a contract employee with prosecutors’ offices all over Louisiana. If that weren’t bad enough, Holland is also working with the Louisiana District Attorneys Association to lobby legislators against much-needed criminal justice reform in the state.
The Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office’s decision to seek the death penalty against a teenager with severe mental health impairments — especially when substantial evidence, never shared with the defense, pointed to other culprits — underscores the substantial power of prosecutors. It’s a power that must be checked by holding prosecutors accountable, through elections, through engagement with district attorney offices, through litigation, and through legislation.
Given these troubling practices, it’s no wonder that until recently Caddo Parish was leading the country in death sentences per capita. Dale Cox, the former acting district attorney, maintained that rather than limiting the death penalty to the most violent offenders, consistent with national trends, we should instead “kill more people” — a staggering and revealing statement about the state of criminal justice in the parish.
Fortunately, in 2016, the people of Caddo Parish sent a clear message at the polls, rejecting the Cox administration. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that countless victims of prosecutorial misconduct are locked up in prisons throughout the state. With Williams v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court has an opportunity to hold Louisiana prosecutors accountable while also sending a strong message that such prosecutorial misconduct is intolerable in any state of the union. The court should review Williams’ case and end the 20 years of injustice he’s endured.
Anna Arceneaux is the Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project