Crime - Sacto 911

9th Circuit panel: Retry murder defendant or release him

A federal appellate court has frustrated the efforts of prosecutors to avoid a retrial of Richard Alex Williams, doing life without parole on a first-degree murder conviction 17 years ago in Sacramento.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton last year ordered Williams, now 37, released or retried within 60 days. The now-retired judge found the guilty verdict unconstitutional because Supervising Deputy District Attorney Rob Gold was guided by race when he kept an African American woman off the jury. The judge further found that some of the reasons Gold gave for his action were pretexts.

The judge halted implementation of the order while the state pursued an appeal, but a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld Karlton’s decision.

The panel was made up of Circuit Judges Stephen Reinhardt, Michael Daly Hawkins and N.R. Smith. No author is designated on a memorandum.

Stephen Grippi, the chief deputy district attorney in Sacramento County, said Friday his office will ask the attorney general’s office, which is defending Williams’ challenge to his imprisonment, to pursue all options now left to the state, including a petition seeking review at the U.S. Supreme Court.

But, Grippi said, if all else fails, his office stands ready to retry Williams, who remains in custody.

Williams’ attorney, Victor Haltom, said Saturday that any satisfaction he and his client might have had with the 9th Circuit’s ruling is offset by Williams’ continued incarceration. Haltom filed a motion last year for Williams’ release while the state appealed, but Karlton’s retirement left that decision up to U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller, who inherited the case. She denied the motion in February, concluding that Williams “is not an appropriate candidate for supervised release.”

Haltom was also thwarted by the appellate court. A footnote on the last page of Thursday’s memorandum reads: “Petitioner’s motion for release is denied.”

The attorney said that if the state seeks a rehearing before an enlarged circuit panel or a Supreme Court review, he will possibly ask the high court to order Williams’ release.

He is behind bars in connection with the shooting death of Marvel Chase on Aug. 12, 1996. Chase was 17 at the time; Williams was 18. Chase was shot while at the wheel of his car. Shots came from a car that pulled up next to Chase’s at the intersection of 48th Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Prosecutors said Williams was driving the car from which gunfire erupted.

Williams and Chase are both African American.

Williams’ first trial ended with a deadlocked jury and a mistrial with holdouts for acquittal by two African American jurors. At a second trial in 1998, a jury found him guilty of murder with special circumstances and two counts of attempted murder.

Detria Thompson, the woman excused by Gold using a peremptory strike, was the only African American prospective juror eligible to sit on the second panel.

Williams’ trial attorney, Jeffrey Fletcher, filed a motion to dismiss the entire pool of prospects 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 Gold’s offered reasons made sense.

Gold is a well-known and well-respected prosecutor who has handled a number of high-profile trials over the years, and Karlton’s order stunned him and his fellow Sacramento prosecutors.

“As far as Rob personally is concerned, it is a shame,” Grippi said last year in an interview. “He is the antithesis of a racist. A 28-year prosecutor with an impeccable record of integrity. There isn’t a biased bone in his body, and everybody who knows him will tell you that.”

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189