Williams v. Swarthout

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: 10-23-2014
  • Case #: 11-57255
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Noonan for the Court; Circuit Judge Reinhardt; Dissent by Circuit Judge Murguia
  • Full Text Opinion

If a judge misstates and assigns guilt to a criminal defendant, “he strips the jury of its fundamental role and subverts the requirement that the jury must confirm the truth of every accusation.”

Bryant Keith Williams plead not guilty to one count of false imprisonment and two counts sexual penetration by a foreign object. On December 12, 2006, once the jury had been sworn in, the judge “stated: I will now explain the presumption of innocence and the people’s burden of proof. The defendant has pleaded guilty to the charges.” Neither the prosecutor nor Williams’s attorney corrected the judge. During deliberation, the jury sent a note to the judge asking: “As a group we the jury feel we heard the judge state the defendant pleaded guilty before the trial. Is this true?” The judge reviewed the transcript, summoned the jury to explain his error, and informed the jury that he had “no knowledge beyond their own as to Williams’s guilty or innocence.” Williams’s counsel twice moved for a mistrial because when the jury was polled there was at least one juror who still had reservations. Ultimately, Williams was convicted of all three counts. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that while it is presumed that juries will follow a court’s instructions, this “presumption may be overcome when ‘there is an “overwhelming probability” that the jury will be unable to [do so], and a strong likelihood that the effect of the evidence would be “devastating” to the defendant.’” Applying Richardson v. Marsh, the panel concluded that “[t]here can be no dispute that during trial the jury’s view of the evidence was seriously compromised by the judge’s misstatement,” and that the misstatement was not cured by either the judges first or second curative instructions. Thus, the misstatement was “devastating to Williams,” because “[w]here a judge assigns guilt, even inadvertently, he strips the jury of its fundamental role and subverts the requirement that the jury must confirm the truth of every accusation.” REVERSED and REMANDED.

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