In an opinion that reads like a parody of the absurd results courts can reach in applying the doctrine of “materiality” in Brady claims, a judge in Louisiana held late last month that witness statements placing a murder weapon in the hands of a man other than the defendant–both before and after the crime–are “not material” evidence, and would not have affected the outcome of the trial.

The ruling, from Katherine Clark Dorroh, a district judge in Caddo Parish, comes in the case of Corey Williams, a 16 year old at the time of the murder. Williams, who has an IQ of 68, was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1998 killing and robbery of a pizza delivery man based chiefly on his own confession, a confession obtained after hours of interrogation, and after his mother had been sent home from the police station.

Earlier this week Judge Dorrah’s decision was appealed to Louisiana’s Second Circuit by attorneys at The Promise of Justice Initiative, whose comprehensive brief you can read here. The Innocence Project New Orleans filed an accompanying amicus brief specifically on the issue of false confessions.

Massive Alleged Brady Violations

No forensic evidence linked Corey Williams to the crime in question. The older men who were friends and acquaintances of Williams, and who, it is uncontested, split the proceeds of the robbery, disposed of the murder weapon, and later testified against Williams, faced no criminal charges. In 2002, a Louisiana appellate court found Williams to be “mentally retarded” and resentenced him to life in prison.

In his recent application for post-conviction relief, Williams’ lawyers revealed that, despite requests from the original trial counsel for the records, Caddo Parish prosecutors, including the notorious Hugo Holland, had withheld multiple recorded witness statements. Instead of the statements themselves, prosecutors turned over selective “summaries” of what these older men had told police before their testimony against Williams.

Among the evidence not disclosed in the “summaries” to the defense were:

  • a witness statement that one of the older men had possession of the gun before the crime
  • witness statements that one of the older men had possession of the gun immediately after the crime
  • a witness statement that one of the older men who split the proceeds of the robbery had set up the murder, and that his brother had committed the murder
  • Police detective statements during interviews that they believed Williams had been set up by the older men and was not guilty of the crime
  • Witness statements that one of the older men and members of his family had threatened other witnesses into altering their accounts of the crime to police
  • Witness statements that one of the older men had confessed to being involved in the crime

In denying Williams application for relief earlier this month, Judge Dorrah wrote:

Petitioner fails to demonstrate how the alleged excluded evidence was material and fails to demonstrate or show a reasonable probability that had the evidence been disclosed the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Specifically, in finding that the witness statement placing the gun in the hands of one of the older men before the crime was not exculpatory of Williams, the judge ruled that if the older man had been confronted with such a witness statement contradicting his own testimony, “it is likely…he would have denied the allegations.”

How a witness’s “likely” denial of impeaching evidence renders such evidence irrelevant to the outcome of a trial beggars the legal mind. Indeed, it lacks the basic logic and cogency that is the minimal requirement of judicial decision making. Put simply, it makes no sense.

Nor does the blank assertion that Corey Williams confession obviates entirely the relevance of the investigating detectives’ own statements that they believed Williams had not committed the crime. “Corey Williams confessed to the murder,” Judge Dorroh wrote. “He admitted his guilt. The Court finds Petitioner’s claims concerning police opinions to be without merit.”

Evidence shows that detectives believed that a 16 year old boy with an IQ of 68 had been set up by three older men present at the scene, who took the money from the victim and disposed of the murder weapon, yet we are to believe that this information would have no effect on a defense which was intent on showing that one of these men was in fact responsible for the murder.

During the original trial, police detectives denied they had any information that Williams was set up. Indeed, in his closing argument, prosecutor Hugo Holland compared the defense counsel’s suggestion that police detectives had deliberately omitted this evidence to the conspiracy shootings regarding JFK.  At the time he made this argument, Holland was in possession of statements making clear that this was exactly the view of police officers.

A Judge Linked to Notorious Caddo Prosecutor Dale Cox

In light of all of the above, one might ask, Who is District Judge Katherine Clark Dorrah? It turns out she is the same judge who denied the claim for compensation for thirty years of unjust imprisonment made by nationally renowned exoneree Glenn Ford before he died of lung cancer. The man who requested that denial from Judge Dorrah was prosecutor Dale Cox, who the Shreveport Times described as having “achieved national infamy” in his pursuit of the death penalty in Caddo Parish.

This year, in another case involving Cox, Judge Dorrah refused to declare a mistrial when Cox threatened to “cold-cock” the defense attorney. And who was the prosecutor arguing against post-conviction relief in the present case of Corey Williams? Again, Dale Cox.

One of Williams’ attorneys, Ben Cohen, told the Open File:

The guys who committed the murder, the prosecutors and the police all decided it was easier to place the blame on an intellectually disabled lead-poisoned child, and figured no one would care; I understand why the guys picked on the weakest of the bunch, but the police and the prosecutors – they were supposed to protect kids like Corey, who could not protect himself.

There is good reason for outrage in any number of applications of the “harmless error” doctrine, which permits prosecutorial misconduct to go not only unpunished, but as a result, encouraged. In this instance, the truly stunning amount of exculpatory evidence which has been deemed “immaterial” to the outcome of a trial defies both legal and common sense.

Given the nationally infamous prosecutor representing the state on appeal, and a judge who has repeatedly enabled his behavior and tactics, it is one that deserves wide attention and considerable further investigation.

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