The Corey Williams Story

December 17, 2015

You likely have not heard of Corey Williams but the story of his dubious murder conviction is another story that lays bare the scope of injustice that pervades Louisiana’s criminal justice system — and Caddo Parish in particular. It is a story that merits national attention not just for the shoddy work of police and prosecutors in the case but for the way state judges so far have refused to use their authority to unwind what surely is an inaccurate and unreliable result.

Williams was barely 16 years old and intellectually disabled when he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for killing a pizza delivery man in Shreveport in January 1998. How do we know he was disabled? A Louisiana court subsequently said so, concluding that Williams lacked “the ability to engage in the world around him (even in a proceeding where the death penalty (for him) is being addressed.” That judge thus reduced Williams’s death sentence to a sentence of life in prison without parole — a fact that makes what happened at Williams’s trial even more stark.

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.

Witnesses did place Williams at the scene of the crime. He was there. A witness, Nathan Logan’s girlfriend, said she saw Gabriel Logan hand Williams a gun before the shooting, and before Williams fled the scene, but she later testified that the gun she had seen was not the murder weapon. State attorneys and the presiding judge now say this witness was credible about identifying Williams with a gun but not credible identifying the gun itself. Meanwhile, when the police caught up to Williams he was at his grandmother’s house hiding under a blanket. He had neither the gun used in the murder nor the money taken from the victim, nor the pizza the man delivered before his death.

How did it come to pass that he was charged as a principal in the murder? Because two of those other, older suspects implicated in the investigation incriminated Williams and because Williams himself was deemed to have “confessed” to the murder. The confession clearly trumped everything else in the case but there was little reason to believe (even before Williams was deemed mentally disabled by a judge) that it was lawful or reliable. At first Williams denied any role in the murder. By the time he “confessed” he had been at the police station for over six hours without eating or sleeping. His mother, who initially had been there, had by then left.

At trial, prosecutors relied on the confession, and the fact that Williams was present at the scene of the crime with a gun, and derided the defense argument that Williams, a “slow” kid, had been set up by those three other suspects. Even in the absence of physical evidence linking Williams to the victim it must have been an easy choice for jurors. So many wrongful conviction cases start out this way; as easy choices for jurors who haven’t heard the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

It was only after Williams was convicted and sentenced to death that defense attorneys learned the truth about what police and prosecutors knew about those other suspects. A series of pre-trial interviews taken by the police revealed the extent to which those three men had been involved in the murder and then had lied about it to save their own skins. The police interviews suggest that the police knew that Williams was mentally disabled and that the older suspects were trying to pin the murder on him. Worse, there is evidence to suggest that the police didn’t make an innocent mistake in concluding that Williams was the triggerman; that they instead shaped the written record to fit their theory based upon that dicey confession.

Under the Supreme Court’s command in Brady v. Maryland, the transcripts of these police interviews should have been disclosed to the defense before Williams’s trial to protect his constitutional right to a fair trial. None of it was. Instead, “summarized witness statements” were produced to the defense by police and prosecutors; summaries that unsurprisingly endorsed the prosecutors’ theory of the case and at the same time precluded Williams’s trial attorneys from meaningfully challenging key testimony. Basic testimony like where the murder weapon ultimately was found, for example.

When a prosecutor violates the law by failing to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense a judge is required to determine whether the evidence would have reasonably created a different result at trial. Tell me: if you were a juror in the Williams case would you have wanted to know what the police and prosecutors knew? That those three other men had implicated themselves in the murder and that Williams likely had not fired the shot that had killed the victim? It’s hard to imagine evidence more likely to change a jurors mind than the evidence that was suppressed in Williams’s case.

And yet that’s not how First Judicial District Court Judge Katherine Clark Dorroh saw it in a short, uninspiring ruling she issued five weeks ago, a ruling that now is on appeal through Louisiana’s justice system. Judge Dorroh, best known nationally for refusing to grant compensation to the wrongfully convicted Glenn Ford,  concluded that the police summaries provided to the defense “were not different from the actual statements” taken by the police and that those statements would not have saved Williams from being convicted anyway. This is preposterous.

If you read the summaries, and then read the initial reports, the idea that both are the same is absurd. So is the legal reasoning this judge used to deny Williams relief. For example, prosecutors failed to turn over specific testimony from a witness who claimed that Moore (not Williams) had the murder weapon on the day of the shooting. Such testimony could have been used to impeach Moore’s testimony at Williams’s trial. But Judge Dorroh said no, the value of this witness’s statement could not have changed Williams’s conviction because Moore simply would have denied that he had the weapon. Imagine a trial judge who declared that the only cross-examinations that were lawful and worthy of being conducted in her courtroom were those that caused the witness to confess.

How an intellectually disabled teenager could make a valid confession, after six hours of interrogation without food or water, is a question the Louisiana courts have not yet fully answered. How such a defendant could be incompetent to be executed but not incompetent to make a valid confession also is a question that begs an answer. Nor, for that matter, has anyone explained why Caddo Parish prosecutors have not been disciplined (or evidently even questioned under applicable ethics rules) for failing to disclose the powerful evidence they suppressed in this case. We don’t even know why they would have wanted to let Moore and Nathan Logan to get off scot free.

It’s a miracle, really, that Williams’s death sentence was lowered to a life sentence given how feckless are Louisiana’s appellate judges. But that doesn’t mean justice has been done here. I have covered enough of these wrongful conviction cases to have given up reasonable hope that Louisiana’s justice system will ever mete out justice in any sort of consistent or timely way. It will likely take a federal court review, and another decade or so of avoidable litigation, for justice to come at last to Williams. By then he will have served twice as long in prison as he spent before he was arrested for a crime he may not have committed.

How do epic wrongful conviction cases like this come about? They come about this way, with dirty work at trial that gets endorsed by trial judges and then glossed over on appeal by judges less concerned about accuracy than to some hoary notion of a rule of law. Caddo Parish has a new prosecutor. 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.

(photo: thinkstock)

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.