A trial judge’s single wrong word at the opening of a sex crime trial in 2006 has resulted in an order for a new trial and reversal of the 50-year prison sentence by a federal appeals court.
The Los Angeles County judge told jurors at the opening of Bryant Williams’s trial that he had “pled guilty to the charges” rather than stating not guilty, as he should and it was not corrected until jurors raised the issue during deliberations.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday ruled the misstatement and failure to correct it immediately deprived Williams of a fair trial and ordered the case back to state court. The panel split 2-1 on the decision.
Less than an hour into deliberation in 2006, the jury sent a note to the judge stating, “As a group we the jury feel we heard the judge state the defendant pleaded guilty before the trial. Is that true?”
After checking the record, the judge found the error and corrected it. Both the court reporter and district attorney noticed the error but neither said anything, according to the opinion.
He apologized and explained he had no more knowledge of Williams’s guilt or innocence than the jury. Despite that admonishment and asking jurors if they could set aside his mistake, one juror later sent a note that, “I went through the entire trial thinking that the defendant had pleaded, and was, guilty. I saw everything through that lens.”
The defense sought a mistrial. Instead the judge dismissed the juror and the panel resumed deliberations.
Williams was convicted of false imprisonment and one of the two counts of sex by use of a foreign object and sentenced to 50 years in prison, according to the state appeals court opinion. Jurors were also told that Williams had a prior conviction in 1994 for the revenge rape of the 57-year-old grandmother of a woman who had spurned his attentions.
The state appeals courts later found that the judge’s misstatement was error but had been corrected sufficiently to be harmless.
Williams brought a habeas challenge in federal court, which the 9th Circuit granted Thursday.
“Viewed in the context of the trial as a whole, the judge’s initial misstatement and his ineffective attempts to cure it were devastating to Williams,” wrote Judge John Noonan.
“The state’s case was hardly overwhelming; it relied almost entirely on [the victim’s] testimony” with no physical evidence, he said. He was joined by Judge Stephen Reinhardt.
In dissent, Judge Mary Murguia said she would agree with the California Court of Appeal determination that his state and federal constitutional rights had not been violated.
Case: Williams v. Swarthout, No. 11-57255