Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, December 20, 2013


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Seven-Year Delay in Death Penalty Case Not Unconstitutional—S.C.




A seven-year delay in bringing a death penalty defendant to trial did not violate his statutory and constitutional rights to a speedy trial, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

Justice Goodwin H. Liu, writing for the high court, said it was “clear that the lion’s share of delay” in bringing Robert Lee Williams Jr. to trial “resulted from defense counsel’s lack of progress in preparing this case for trial.” That delay may be the longest in any California death penalty case, the justice said, but must be attributed to the defendant, in the absence of what the U.S. Supreme Court has called a “systemic breakdown of the public defender system.”

Four justices joined Liu in the opinion, while two members of the court concurred in the result, although not the analysis.

Williams, now 46 and formerly of Moreno Valley, was sentenced to death by Riverside Superior Court Judge Dennis McConaghy in 2003 for the murders of Roscoe Williams, 54, and Gary Williams, 28. The defendant is not related to the victims, who were father and son.

The victims had their throats slashed. Gary Williams’ girlfriend, identified only as Conya L., also had her throat slashed, but survived.

Witness Assaulted

She testified at the trial that three men came into the house with Gary Williams, grabbed an unsuspecting Roscoe Williams when he came into the house, and beat Gary Williams before killing him and his father. She said she escaped through a window after being taken into a bathroom and sexually assaulted by the defendant.

She identified one of the other men as Ronald Walker. He and Robert Williams—his cousin—were both charged with the murders, but their cases were eventually severed and Walker is now serving two life sentences without possibility of parole.

The third perpetrator was never identified.

Conya L. said she was aware that Gary Williams supported himself through armed robbery. Investigators tied him to about 20 robberies of banks and credit unions over a period of several years before his death, and said Robert Williams and his cohorts killed him for a share of the loot.

The last robbery, they said, occurred just five days before the killings. About $56,000 was taken from a credit union in Orange County, with Gary Williams escaping in one vehicle, while two men who tried to get away in another car were apprehended after a high-speed chase.

The men allegedly planned that robbery in part to satisfy a demand by Robert Williams for money.

Complicating Factors

Efforts to bring Robert Williams to trial were complicated by a number of factors, Liu noted in a lengthy procedural history of the case. There were 12 Marsden hearings; a 10.5-month period in which the defendant represented himself, before the judge terminated his right to do so because he had not diligently prepared for trial; and several substitutions of court-appointed counsel.

Not all of the delays were attributable to the defense, Liu acknowledged. He noted that trial was delayed for some time because one of the prosecutors was ill, that the defendant’s initial lawyers—from the Riverside Public Defenders’ Office—had declared a conflict of interest 26 months after his arrest, and that another lawyer also had to drop out after a late-discovered conflict.

But several years of the delay, Liu noted, occurred after Williams made the decision to represent himself, and after that status was terminated.

The justice wrote:

“In this case, the prosecution was prepared to bring defendant to trial, but the trial court repeatedly indulged defense counsel’s requests for continuances due to lack of preparation. We appreciate the dilemma confronting the trial court and do not suggest that it abused its discretion in granting the 19 continuances that occurred here. But we note (with the obvious benefit of hindsight) that the trial court could have done more to move this case to trial once the mounting delay became evident.”

The judge could have, for example, insisted on timelines for investigation and discovery when continuing the case, “or otherwise more closely monitor progress in the case, even as it recognized that the case was ‘the oldest one in the courthouse,’” Liu noted.

Presumption Rebutted

The jurist said the prosecution had successfully rebutted the presumption of prejudice arising from the share length of the delay, in part because the defense’s claims of actual delay were vague and speculative.

Chief Justice Tanti Cantil-Sakuye and Justices Kathryn M. Werdegar, Joyce L. Kennard and Carol Corrigan joined in the opinion.

Justice Marvin Baxter, in a concurrence joined by Justice Ming Chin, said it was unfair to conclude that there was an undue lack of diligence on the part of defense counsel.

“The majority’s purported finding as to counsel’s performance rests almost entirely on statements by defendant and his attorneys made in ex parte proceedings…and on the asserted failure of the appellate record to detail the work product completed by counsel in preparation for trial….,” Baxter wrote. “But one would hardly expect to discover a log of an attorney’s investigation (or the fruits thereof) in a reporter’s transcript or clerk’s transcript of pretrial proceedings.”

Noting that the defendant never made a speedy trial motion in the trial court, Baxter reasoned that “the majority’s purported factual finding that counsel was responsible for the delay is without factual or legal foundation. “

The case is People v. Williams, 13 S.O.S. 6416.


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