Williams v. Armontrout

Decision Date06 February 1990
Docket NumberNo. 88-1342,88-1342
Citation891 F.2d 656
Parties29 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 616 Doyle J. WILLIAMS, Appellant, v. Bill ARMONTROUT, Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Charles W. German, Kansas City, Mo., for appellant.

John M. Morris, Asst. Atty. Gen., Jefferson City, Mo., for appellee.

Before McMILLIAN, Circuit Judge, BRIGHT, Senior Circuit Judge, and FAGG, Circuit Judge.

BRIGHT, Senior Circuit Judge.

On September 17, 1981, a jury in Clay County, Missouri, convicted Doyle J. Williams of capital murder and sentenced him to death. After a long and circuitous appeal in the state courts to exhaust his claims, Williams petitioned the district court for a writ of habeas corpus. Williams now appeals the district court's denial of the writ. For the reasons stated below, we direct the district court to issue the writ vacating Williams' death sentence, but leave to the State of Missouri the choice of resentencing Williams on a lesser charge or retrying the capital murder case against him with appropriate instruction on first-degree murder as a lesser included offense.


We relate the essential facts. On October 10, 1980, sheriff's deputies found the body of Kerry Brummett in the Missouri River. Brummett's arms had been handcuffed behind his back. Medical experts testified at trial that Brummett had drowned, although he had also been struck in the head. Police investigators later traced the handcuffs to Williams.

At trial, the State's case against Williams depended heavily on testimony by John Morgan, an alleged accomplice. Morgan testified that Williams had planned Brummett's murder to keep Brummett from testifying about drug-related charges in which both Williams and Morgan were allegedly implicated. According to Morgan, Williams arranged to have his then-girlfriend, Betty Coleman, lure Brummett to an isolated area near the Missouri River where Morgan and Williams sat waiting. A struggle ensued in which Williams and Morgan purportedly handcuffed Brummett and forced him into the trunk of a borrowed car. From there, the two men planned to transport Brummett to a pre-chosen location near the river bank, where they would shoot Brummett, weight his body with a tire iron, and dump him into the Missouri River.

The route taken, however, was less direct than the captors anticipated. First, the two men found campers at their planned point of entry. Then, Williams discovered he had lost his gun, which required a search of the vehicle and, ultimately, a return to the scene of the abduction to recover it. During this rendezvous, Brummett remained conscious and reportedly promised not to testify.

After recovering the weapon, the two captors drove several more miles before eventually stopping the vehicle at a secluded place near the bank of the Missouri River. At that time, Williams removed Brummett from the trunk. Brummett, then, reportedly got away from Williams and ran into the river.

What happened after this point remains unclear and subject to differing interpretations. According to Morgan, Williams chased Brummett to the edge of the river and then stood on the bank with Morgan and watched Brummett drown. When Brummett temporarily resurfaced, Williams reportedly ordered Morgan to shoot him. Morgan fired a shot, but claimed to have purposely aimed over Brummett's head. After Brummett drowned, Williams allegedly dove into the water and attempted to retrieve the handcuffs, which he feared might link him to the crime.

To challenge Morgan's account, Williams presented an alibi defense at trial. While Williams himself did not testify, a woman friend, Nina Potts, testified that Williams had been with her that evening.

Williams also tried to impeach Morgan's credibility. Specifically, Williams' counsel attempted to show that Brummett had been scheduled as a witness against Morgan only, indicating that Morgan, not Williams, had the motive to kill Brummett. In addition, defense counsel tried to show that Morgan, also a suspect in the capital murder, implicated Williams to exculpate himself once the prosecution promised him immunity for doing so. Finally, defense counsel presented evidence that Morgan's testimony was untrustworthy because he had made several inconsistent statements to police and because Morgan admitted to drug use.

Williams raises several issues on appeal, including failure to instruct on the lesser included offense of first-degree (felony) murder, improper admission of other crimes evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, insufficiency of the evidence and improper wording of the capital murder instruction. We reverse the district court decision denying habeas relief on the lesser included offense issue, but affirm on all other points.

A. First-Degree (Felony) Murder Instruction

At trial, the judge instructed the jury on capital murder, second-degree murder and manslaughter. The judge refused to instruct the jury on first-degree (felony) murder, however, even though both Williams and the State requested the instruction.

Because of the capital charge, due process considerations entitled Williams to have the jury instructed on all lesser included offenses supported by the evidence. Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U.S. 447, 454, 104 S.Ct. 3154, 3158, 82 L.Ed.2d 340 (1984); Hopper v. Evans, 456 U.S. 605, 611, 102 S.Ct. 2049, 2052, 72 L.Ed.2d 367 (1982); Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 637-38, 100 S.Ct. 2382, 2389-90, 65 L.Ed.2d 392 (1980). See also State v. Story, 646 S.W.2d 68, 73 (Mo.1983) (en banc). At the time of Williams' trial, first-degree murder was a lesser included offense of capital murder under Missouri law. State v. Daugherty, 631 S.W.2d 637, 645 (Mo.1982); State v. Fuhr, 626 S.W.2d 379, 379 (Mo.1982).

While the Missouri Supreme Court held in State v. Baker, 636 S.W.2d 902, 904-05 (Mo.1982) (en banc), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1183, 103 S.Ct. 834, 74 L.Ed.2d 1027 (1983), that felony murder was not a lesser included offense for capital murders occurring after January 1, 1979, the Missouri Supreme Court has applied Baker so selectively that we must conclude its only purpose has been to affirm convictions. See, e.g., State v. Holland, 653 S.W.2d 670, 680 (Mo.1983) (en banc) (Welliver, J., dissenting) ("The majority * * * has treated similarly situated defendants differently in a transparent effort to avoid granting them new trials."); State v. Williams, 652 S.W.2d 102, 117-18 (Mo.1983) (en banc) (Welliver, J., dissenting); State v. Goddard, 649 S.W.2d 882, 890-92 (Mo.1983) (en banc) (Welliver, J., dissenting), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 997, 104 S.Ct. 495, 78 L.Ed.2d 689 (1983).

We document the Missouri Supreme Court's selective application of Baker to affirm convictions as follows. The Missouri Supreme Court initially applied Baker retroactively, thereby affirming three capital murder convictions in which trial courts neglected to give the first-degree murder instruction. See State v. Blair, 638 S.W.2d 739, 747 (Mo.1982) (en banc), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1188, 103 S.Ct. 838, 74 L.Ed.2d 1030 (1983); State v. Woods, 639 S.W.2d 818, 819 (Mo.1982); State v. Betts, 646 S.W.2d 94, 96 (Mo.1983) (en banc). The Missouri Supreme Court then changed course and held in State v. Goddard, 649 S.W.2d at 889, that Baker applied prospectively only. This ruling permitted the court to affirm a jury verdict of first-degree murder even though the State had charged only capital murder. In affirming the Goddard conviction, the Missouri Supreme Court reasoned that, in view of the State's long history of "instructing down" in capital cases, the trial court permissibly instructed the jury on first-degree murder when, as in Goddard, the same evidence supported conviction for either charge. Id. at 887-89.

Just four weeks later, however, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed its position again, this time holding that Baker's retroactive application prohibited instruction on first-degree murder. State v. Williams 652 S.W.2d at 112. This case affirmed Williams' conviction for capital murder. Shortly after Williams, the Missouri Supreme Court changed positions for the third time that year and affirmed a first-degree murder conviction based on Baker's prospective application. State v. Holland, 653 S.W.2d at 673. Four years later, a Missouri Court of Appeals admitted it could not reconcile the Williams decision with other Missouri case law. Rumble v. State, 741 S.W.2d 283, 284-85 n. 2 (Mo.Ct.App.1987).

This selective application of Baker by the Missouri courts denies similarly situated defendants in capital murder cases equal protection of law in violation of the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution. 1 See McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279, 291 n.8, 107 S.Ct. 1756, 1766 n. 8, 95 L.Ed.2d 262 (1987); Dobbert v. Florida, 432 U.S. 282, 301, 97 S.Ct. 2290, 2302, 53 L.Ed.2d 344 (1977); Andrews v. Shulsen, 802 F.2d 1256, 1270-71 & n.11 (10th Cir.1986), cert. denied, 485 U.S. 919, 108 S.Ct. 1091, 99 L.Ed.2d 253 (1988). The equal protection clause prohibits states from applying laws unequally to achieve improper purposes. Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 249, 256, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 2731, 2735, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (1972) (Douglas, J., concurring); Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 373-74, 6 S.Ct. 1064, 1072-73, 30 L.Ed. 220 (1886); United States v. Falk, 479 F.2d 616, 619 (7th Cir.1973) (en banc). See also Oyler v. Boles, 368 U.S. 448, 456, 82 S.Ct. 501, 505, 7 L.Ed.2d 446 (1962); Brown v. Parratt, 560 F.2d 303, 304 n.3 (8th Cir.1977). Moreover, the finality of capital punishment mandates that states insure reasonable, rational and fair procedures when imposing it. Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. at 637-38, 100 S.Ct. at 2389-90; Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349, 357-58, 97 S.Ct. 1197, 1204-05, 51 L.Ed.2d 393 (1977). See also Brown v. Parratt, 560 F.2d at 304 (quoting Furman v. Georgia, ...

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