Under pressure from a federal court and a defense lawyer, a Sacramento Superior Court judge has set a retrial to start Monday for Richard Alex Williams, who was found guilty by a jury 17 years ago of killing a young man sitting behind the wheel of a car at a south Sacramento County intersection.
Williams was serving a sentence of life in prison without parole until last year, when a federal judge declared the conviction tainted by a prosecutor’s race-based exclusion of a member of the jury pool.
At a hearing last week, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ben Davidian reluctantly sent the case out for trial, after defense lawyer Victor Haltom insisted that the federal order left the judge no choice.
Supervising Deputy District Attorney Keith Hill argued that his office has 60 more days “to initiate proceedings,” but not to start a trial.
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When a habeas corpus petition came before him last year, the late U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton:
▪ ordered Williams, who is African American, released or retried within 60 days,
▪ found the guilty verdict unconstitutional because the prosecutor was guided by race when he kept an African American woman off the jury, and
▪ found that some of the reasons the prosecutor gave for his action were pretexts.
Karlton halted implementation of his order while the state pursued an appeal. In June, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Karlton’s decision.
“If the appeal is unsuccessful, (prosecutors) shall have ... 30 days from the date the appellate decision is final to institute trial proceedings in state court,” Karlton directed in his stay order. The appellate mandate was issued Aug. 21.
The language of Karlton’s order means a jury has to be sworn and the first witness called within 30 days after the mandate, Haltom argued.
Davidian and Hill both expressed incredulity that Karlton would issue such a directive. Davidian asked Haltom if there is legal authority for the order, and Haltom cited case law.
“I find that somewhat unbelievable,” Hill said.
Davidian assigned the case to Superior Court Judge Allen H. Sumner and remarked, “Judge Sumner will be delighted to see this on his desk when he comes in Monday.”
Outside the courtroom after the hearing, Haltom said if the prosecution is not ready to begin trial Monday, he will ask U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller, who was assigned the case when Karlton retired a year ago, to order Williams’ release.
At the hearing Wednesday, Hill said his office recently offered a deal to Williams: plead guilty in return for a sentence of 25 years to life. Hill pointed out that Williams has already been behind bars for almost 20 years. Haltom informed Davidian the offer was rejected.
Williams, who is being held at the Sacramento County Jail, was convicted in the shooting death of Marvel Chase on Aug. 12, 1996. Chase, also African American, was 17; Williams was 18. Chase was shot in his car while stopped at the corner of 48th Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Williams was accused of driving a car from which the gunfire erupted.
Williams’ first trial ended when the jury deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial, with two African American jurors voting for acquittal. At a second trial in 1998, a jury found him guilty of murder with special circumstances and the attempted murder of two passengers in Chase’s car.
Detria Thompson, the woman excused by the prosecutor using a peremptory strike, was at that time the only African American eligible to sit on the panel.
Williams’ trial attorney filed a motion to dismiss the entire pool of prospective jurors based on a 1978 holding by the California Supreme Court that peremptory challenges may not be employed to exclude all or most members of a certain group solely because of presumed “group bias.” But Superior Court Judge Jeffrey L. Gunther, now retired, denied the motion, saying the prosecutor’s proffered reasons for excluding Thompson made sense to him.
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189