400 F.2d 797 (5th Cir. 1968), 25349, Williams v. Dutton

Docket Nº:25349.
Citation:400 F.2d 797
Party Name:Venson Eugene WILLIAMS, Appellant, v. A. L. DUTTON, Warden of the State Prison at Reidsville, Georgia, Appellee.
Case Date:August 20, 1968
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Page 797

400 F.2d 797 (5th Cir. 1968)

Venson Eugene WILLIAMS, Appellant,


A. L. DUTTON, Warden of the State Prison at Reidsville, Georgia, Appellee.

No. 25349.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.

Aug. 20, 1968

Page 798

Lynn A. Downey, Atlanta, Ga., for appellant.

Alfred L. Evans, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen., Atlanta, Ga., for appellee.

Before GEWIN and THORNBERRY, Circuit Judges, and EDENFIELD, District judge.

GEWIN, Circuit Judge:

Sometime in the early morning hours of April 17, 1964, three police officers were brutally shot to death and left lying in a pine thicket in Gwinnett County, Georgia. A year and a half later, appellant Venson Eugene Williams was tried before a jury in the Gwinnett County Superior Court for the murder of one of the officers. He was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair. After exhausting all his state remedies, 1 Williams filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, alleging that his confinement in the state penitentiary was unlawful in that his conviction had been obtained in violation of his fourteenth amendment rights. The district court denied the relief sought in the habeas corpus petition 2 and Williams had perfected an appeal to this court. We reverse the decision

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of the district court and remand the case with instructions.

The precise details of the murder involved in this case are not pertinent to the questions raised. We shall therefore summarize the facts which the jury was warranted in finding. Appellant Williams and one Truett owned a garage in Hartsville, South Carolina, where they were engaged in the business of rebuilding wrecked automobiles. Early in 1964, they purchased a maroon-colored 1963 Oldsmobile which had been damaged on the left side and rear. They concluded that the car could not be resold at a profit if they had to purchase the repair parts. Therefore, with the help of one Evans, they located and stole a substantially identical Oldsmobile in Atlanta, Georgia. Returning to Hartsville, the three men stopped on a back road in Gwinnett County in order to put new registration plates and a new ignition switch on the stolen car. Responding to a police call reporting suspicious activity, three Gwinnett County police officers accosted the car thieves. While being questioned by the officers, Evans grabbed the gun from one of the officers, the other two were then disarmed, and all three of them were bound together with their own handcuffs. Williams and Evans then took the officers into a little wooded area off the road and shot each officer a number of times, mostly in the back of the head. The stolen Oldsmobile was driven off the road and set afire and the three carthieves-turned-murderers slinked away in the night, leaving the lifeless bodies and the burning car.

Although Williams, Evans, and Truett had been prime suspects very early in the investigation, more than a year went by before charges were filed against them. The difficulty encountered by the investigating officers was in discovering more than circumstantial evidence connecting the suspects with the crime. The breakthrough came when Truett, on a promise of immunity from prosecution, agreed to confess participation in the crime and to testify on behalf of the prosecution.

The trial court denied appellant Williams' pretrial motion for production of the following materials: (1) a writing 'promising immunity from prosecution or preferential treatment, sentence or reward to Wade L. Truett'; (2) a writing 'promising immunity from prosecution or preferential treatment, sentence or reward to Marion C. Perry'; (3) the names of the witnesses before the grand jury which returned the indictment against him; (4) the names of persons whose testimony was given to the grand jury by or through someone else; (5) the written statements of all witnesses given to the prosecution; 3 (6) the names of the police officers who questioned Williams' wife; (7) the substance of the information given to the police officers by Williams' wife, particularly the date she told them she last saw her husband during the month of April 1964; (8) the record of the grand jury proceedings; and (9) the names and, apparently, the whereabouts of all witnesses to be called by the state.

Williams contends that the denial of his production motions violated rights protected by the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment. He asserts that the refusal to produce the demanded evidence was equivalent to a suppression of evidence. In Brady v. State of Maryland, 4 the Supreme Court stated:

We now hold that the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment,

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irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution. 5

The Brady decision culminates a series of cases in which the Court proscribed the use by the prosecution of perjured testimony and the active suppression of exculpating or favorable evidence. 6 It is now clear that Brady imposes an affirmative duty on the prosecution to produce at the appropriate time requested evidence which is materially favorable to the accused either as direct or impeaching evidence.

Appellee insists that Brady is inapplicable to the present case because there has been no showing that the evidence demanded was favorable to Williams. We think, however, that due process of law cannot be sidestepped by such a facile distinction. The Brady quandary presented by this case is not new to this court. In Guerrero v. Beto, 7 the court remanded the case to the district court for a plenary hearing to determine whether the demanded evidence was favorable to the accused. In the circumstances of this case, 8 we think that the question should be determined in camera by the state courts. 9 If, after examination of the demanded evidence, the state court determines that favorable evidence 'material either to guilt or to punishment' has been suppressed, then Williams must be granted a new trial. 10

We realize that this requirement places an added burden on the trial court and it is with great reluctance that we impose it. However, we think that the alternative procedures for safeguarding the rights of criminal defendants are undesirable. The right of the accused to have evidence material to his defense cannot depend upon the benevolence of the prosecutor. 11 Likewise, we reject appellant

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Williams' contention that the prosecution's files should have been open to him. Since a criminal defendant cannot be compelled to incriminate himself, 12 discovery in a criminal trial must necessarily be substantially unilateral. We think that unlimited discovery of the state's files would unduly impair effective prosecution of criminal cases. On the other hand, since the investigative resources of the state are generally far superior to those of the defendant, a total exclusion of the accused from the evidence gathered by the prosecution also seems unwarranted. We therefore think that the procedure which we adopt in this case is a necessary compromise of the conflicting interests a state and accused.

Williams next contends that the trial court violated due process when it denied his motion for a change of venue, because 'the entire jury panel had been subjected to such prejudicial publicity that the accused did not obtain a fair trial.' The newspaper clippings and other facts relative to the alleged prejudicial publicity are not in the record before this court. There does not, however, appear to be any substantial disagreement as to the facts in the parties' briefs. We shall, therefore, give appellant Williams the benefit of any doubt by quoting the pertinent facts from his brief:

From the morning of April 17, 1964 (when the policemen's bodies were discovered), for a period of two weeks, every detail of the case was related, the stories of witnesses, descriptions of the scene and of the bodies, the activities and discoveries of various investigative officers and their speculations and theories as to the motives and manner of commission of the crimes. Then, for a while, the publicity died out, except for a brief flare when some apparently false leads stirred speculations of a solution. It was not until June, 1965, that a full blast of news coverage again broke loose, following an announcement on June 25, 1965, by the Governor of the State that the murders were 'solved' (Atlanta Journal, June 25, 1965). On the morning of June 26, 1965, the headlines informed the public, including the prospective jurors whoever they were to be, that all three suspects were crimiinals then serving time for other crimes (Atlanta Constitution, June 26, 1965).

On July 1, 1965, the news media for the...

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