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March 8, 2014

Notable federal capital case about to begin in the Aloha State

HawAs reported in this AP article, a "Honolulu courtroom is set to become the scene of a death penalty trial even though Hawaii abolished capital punishment in 1957." Here is more about how and why:

Opening statements are scheduled for Tuesday in the trial of a former Hawaii-based Army soldier accused of beating his 5-year-old daughter to death in 2005. But because the crime allegedly took place on military property, Naeem Williams is being tried in federal court — a system that does have the death penalty.

It's rare for the government to seek the death penalty in a state that doesn't allow it. Only seven of 59 inmates currently on federal death row are from states that didn't have the death penalty at the time the sentence was imposed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

While the Williams case hasn't received much publicity, the death penalty circumstance gives it something in common with a more high profile case for federal prosecutors: the Boston Marathon bombing. "You have a population in Massachusetts and in the city where they're not used to having the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, the Death Penalty Information Center's executive director. "It just makes it a little harder to get these kinds of death sentences."...

Talia Emoni Williams died in July 2005 after she was brought to a hospital unresponsive, vomiting and covered in bruises. A criminal complaint by federal investigators accuses her then-25-year-old father of beating the child to discipline her for urinating on herself. Federal investigators wrote that military law enforcement agents found blood splatters in the walls of the family's home at Wheeler Army Airfield from Talia being whipped with Williams' belt.

Delilah Williams, Talia's stepmother, was also charged with murder but pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors. She's expected to be sentenced to 20 years in prison after she testifies against Williams at his trial, said her federal public defender, Alexander Silvert. The Army agreed the case should be prosecuted in the civilian justice system so that the father and stepmother could appear in the same court....

Talia's biological mother, Tarshia Williams, is expected to testify for the prosecution, her attorneys said. She filed a civil lawsuit against the government over Talia's death. It has been put on hold until after the criminal trial. The mother's lawsuit claims the military didn't report to the proper authorities that Talia's father and stepmother "abused and tortured" her throughout the seven months she lived in Hawaii before she died.

Alberto Gonzales, the U.S. attorney general during President George W. Bush's administration, made the decision to seek the death penalty against Naeem Williams. "Under Bush's administration, the philosophy was the federal death penalty should be spread out among all the states," Dieter said....

The last time the federal death penalty was approved for a Hawaii case was against Richard "China" Chong. But before he went to trial in 2000, he agreed to plead guilty to a 1997 drug-related murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He died of an apparent suicide about three months later.

Hawaii's history with capital punishment goes back long before statehood. There were 49 executions dating in Hawaii dating to 1856, with the last one recorded in 1944, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The final execution of Ardiano Domingo — a Filipino who was hanged for killing a woman with scissors in a Kauai pineapple field — helped prompt Hawaii's territorial lawmakers to abolish the death penalty in the state, said Williamson Chang, a University of Hawaii law school professor who teaches a course on the history of law in Hawaii.

Chang said before the law changed, Hawaii disproportionally executed people of color, mostly Filipinos, Japanese and Native Hawaiians. Because of that history, Chang said he believes Hawaii jurors will struggle with the Williams case. "We're used to a society which does not put people to death," he said. "It's a slap in the face to the values of Hawaii."

March 8, 2014 at 08:20 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I would say the fact that there are only 59 federal death row inmates indicates that the feds are reluctant to seek a death sentence regardless of whether the crime occurred in a state that has execution as a possible sentence or not. Although I might have to modify that somewhat based on knowledge about how often the feds actually seek a death sentence as compared with how often the judge and jury agree. My sence however is that while federal juries are somewhat more reticent about issuing a death recommendation than their state counterparts it is mostly the federal prosecutors not often seeking such a sentence to begin with.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Mar 8, 2014 9:34:18 AM

My views on the death penalty aside, I do think a military base is very different from the Tsarnaev situation in Boston. I can understand why the federal government would assert jurisdiction and seek the death penalty here. I'm curious to see how this case goes.

One thing that I wonder about is this: With this case and with the Boston bombing case (and presumably with any capital case is a non-death penalty state), they always talk about the difficulty of getting a jury that would impose the death penalty. But the jury will be death qualified, so I think those difficulties are overblown. I'm curious if anyone has anything more than anecdotes on this.

Posted by: Erik M | Mar 8, 2014 10:00:27 AM

hmm I think you miss read that soronel. it doesn't say that's every one on the federal death row.

"Only seven of 59 inmates currently on federal death row are from states that didn't have the death penalty at the time the sentence was imposed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C."

What it say is that 59 of them are from states that didn't have a death penalty when the fed's decided to impose one anyway.

the big question is how many of that 59 committed their crime in federal property in that state or was it committed on normal state or public property and the feebs just said the hell with it.

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 8, 2014 1:55:38 PM

whoops that should be

"what it says is that 7 of them are from states that didn't have a death penalty when the fed's decided to impose one anyway.

the big question is how many of that 7 committed their crime on federal property in that state or was it committed on moral state or public property and the feebs just said the hell with it.

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 8, 2014 1:58:06 PM

This happened at Schofield Barracks. The crime was committed by a soldier. Why isn't Naeem Williams being prosecuted under the UCMJ by the Army. Is it because he could only be sentenced to life?

Posted by: ? | Mar 8, 2014 4:43:32 PM

?,

You can read the article to find out.

"The Army agreed the case should be prosecuted in the civilian justice system so that the father and stepmother could appear in the same court...."

Posted by: Matt | Mar 8, 2014 4:57:13 PM

The intent was to discipline. The death was an accident. One should note the race of the victim, and not just of the defendant.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 10, 2014 2:48:54 AM

"But the jury will be death qualified, so I think those difficulties are overblown. I'm curious if anyone has anything more than anecdotes on this."

Erik M.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, for the Feds to get a death sentence in Puerto Rico.

Posted by: Cleveland Attorney | Mar 10, 2014 10:20:50 AM

This is a horrible crime, but it does not seem meaningfully different (unfortunately) from hundreds that are tried as regular murder and result in life/LWOP sentences across the country every year. Unlike in Boston, it is hard to see what sets this apart such that it justifies a federal dp prosecution. (I get that it is on a military base, but given that it is a *soldier* on a military base, that seems like a better argument for UCMJ than US Dist. Ct.) This feels to me like a reach by a conservative AG looking for cases with which to make a point about the DOJ's power/responsibility to seek capital indictments in non-DP states.

Posted by: anon | Mar 10, 2014 11:29:55 AM

"This is a horrible crime, but..."

The abolitionist anthem, in a nutshell.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 10, 2014 11:54:25 AM

The federal government has a reasonable concern to protect lives on a military base and have a stricter hand on the conduct of soldiers there. Also, the federal government can be guided on some level by the mores of the nation as a whole as compared to a specific state. The soldier is merely staying at a certain base at the military's discretion. The person can be moved at a moment's notice.

Though I disagree that there is a federal constitutional bar, I do think some concern should be given to local mores too, especially when a local jury is going to try the case. Up to a point. As to anon's comment, I do wonder, even in a death penalty state, is this the sort of crime that would bring the death penalty.

Yet again there is a comment about 'abolitionists' when the question really should be about the people as a whole, who as a whole do not give the death penalty to those do kill their kids as a result of such child abuse. The article itself cites an expert opining the choice to apply the penalty here was in some fashion motivated by spreading the d.p. nation-wide. It does not appear to be a slam-dunk case of a special "federal interest" in that respect, but within reasonable levels.

This if you assume the legitimacy of the d.p.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 10, 2014 1:50:27 PM

I was Hawaii's first federal public defender, having been appointed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. I agree with those who question why this case is brought as a death penalty case. According to the complaint, "federal investigators accuses her then-25-year-old father of beating the child to discipline her for urinating on herself." This case illustrates one of the primary vices of the death penalty as administered: the virtually unbridled discretion prosecutor's have whether to seek death. The death penalty is supposed to be for the worst of the worst. This death was terrible tragedy (as are all killings), but hardly the worst of the worst. Compare to Tsarneyev who with his brother preplanned explosions with a gleeful intent to murder innocent bystanders--and the more who were killed the better. This case is not even close. Yet the government seeks death here. Prosecutors across the country do not seek the death penalty in cases far worse than this.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Mar 10, 2014 6:32:42 PM

What I would like to know is why the #@!& is a crime committed in 2005, with no question of who the perpetrator is but only degree of culpability, just now getting to trial?

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Mar 11, 2014 3:49:12 PM

Bill Otis and other proponents of the death penalty, here's a recent case that illustrates the weakness of your position:

NEW ORLEANS, March 11 (Reuters) - A Louisiana man who has spent nearly three decades on death row was slated to walk free on Tuesday, after prosecutors asked a judge to set aside his first-degree murder conviction and death sentence, citing new evidence in the case that exonerated him.

Glenn Ford, a black man, was convicted by an all-white jury in the 1983 robbery and murder of Isadore Rozeman, a 56-year-old Shreveport watchmaker, who was found shot to death behind the counter of his jewelry shop.

Acting on new information that exonerated Ford, a judge in Shreveport ordered him released from Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where he has been held on death row since March 1985.

"We are very pleased to see Glenn Ford finally exonerated, and we are particularly grateful that the prosecution and the court moved ahead so decisively to set Mr. Ford free," said Gary Clements and Aaron Novod, attorneys for Ford from the Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana.

Prison spokeswoman Pam Laborde said shortly before 5 p.m. local time (2200 GMT) that Ford was being processed, but she had not yet received confirmation of his release.

Ford, a California native who did occasional yard work for Rozeman, was found guilty in 1984 and was sentenced to die by electrocution, then the state's method of execution.

For three decades, Ford has maintained his innocence and filed multiple appeals, most of which were denied.

But in 2000, the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing on Ford's claim that the prosecution suppressed favorable evidence related to Jake and Henry Robinson, two brothers initially implicated in the crime.

According to the Shreveport Times, court records show that an unidentified informant in 2013 told prosecutors that Jake Robinson admitted to shooting and killing Rozeman.

Last Thursday, prosecutors filed a motion to vacate Ford's conviction and sentence, saying that in late 2013 "credible evidence" came to their attention "supporting a finding that Ford was neither present at, nor a participant in, the robbery and murder of Isadore Rozeman."

If prosecution had been privy to the information initially, the motion said, "Ford might not even have been arrested or indicted for this offense."

Caddo Parish Assistant District Attorney Catherine Estopinal declined on Tuesday to elaborate on what she termed "a recent development" that prompted prosecutors to reverse course.

"I can't go into it," she said. (Editing by Brendan O'Brien, G Crosse and Lisa Shumaker)

Posted by: Dave from texas | Mar 11, 2014 10:55:39 PM

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