Williams v. State Georgia

Decision Date06 June 1955
Docket NumberNo. 412,412
Citation349 U.S. 375,99 L.Ed. 1161,75 S.Ct. 814
PartiesAubry WILLIAMS, Petitioner, v. STATE of GEORGIA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Carter Hall, for petitioner.

Mr. Eugene Gressman, Washington, D.C., as amicus curiae, in support of petitioner by invitation of the Court.

Messrs. E. Freeman Leverett, Robert H. Hall, Atlanta, Ga., for respondent.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Court has here under review the decision of a state court rejecting a claim of infirmity in a conviction for murder based on a constitutional ground raised for the first time in an extraordinary proceeding after the conviction had been affirmed on appeal. Respect for the State's administration of criminal justice requires a detailed narrative of the procedural course of this litigation and an adequate consideration of the legal factors relevant to our disposition.

Petitioner, a Negro, was convicted in Fulton County, Georgia, of the murder of a white man and sentenced to death. According to the allegations before us, the petit jury which convicted him was selected in the following manner:

On February 18, 1953, a judge of the Fulton County Superior Court selected from a box the names of prospective jurors. The names of white persons were on white tickets and the names of Negroes were on yellow tickets. The tickets were handed to a deputy sheriff, who in turn gave them to a deputy clerk for listing. The named jurors were subsequently summoned, some were excused, and the remaining 120 were available for the ten panels of twelve jurors each to serve in the trial of civil and criminal cases in the Fulton County Superior Court for the week of March 9, 1953. Of the 120 jurors, four were Negroes, and all four were assigned to the criminal docket.

On March 10, 1953, a panel of 48 of the 120 jurors was 'put upon' Williams at his trial. Thirteen jurors, includ- ing three of the four Negroes, were excused for cause. The State peremptorily challenged the fourth Negro, so that no Negroes served on the jury of twelve which was finally selected to try Williams.

The trial, which immediately followed the selection of the jury, lasted one day. Twenty-three witnesses appeared against Williams. His only defense was a short unsworn statement to the effect that he had not committed the crime and that he had been 'afraid' when he signed the written confession introduced against him.

Williams' court-appointed attorney filed a formal motion for new trial on March 27, 1953, and a more detailed amendment to the motion on June 29, 1953. The motion was overruled, and an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court followed. On October 14, 1953, that court affirmed the judgment. 210 Ga. 207, 78 S.E.2d 521.

On December 1, 1953, Williams' counsel filed in the trial court an extraordinary motion for new trial under Ga. Code Ann., § 70—303.1 In this motion he alleged for the first time that Williams had been denied equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by the manner in which the petit jury had been selected, organized, impaneled and challenged. An affidavit by Williams accompanied the motion, stating that at the time of trial he had no knowledge of the methods used to select the jury. A similar affidavit by his counsel stated further that 'the same could not have been discovered by him (the counsel) in the exercise of ordinary diligence.' The law partner of Williams' counsel submitted a third affidavit to the effect that he had taken no part in the trial or in its preparation.

On January 18, 1954, the trial court dismissed the extraordinary motion for new trial. An appeal was taken to the Georgia Supreme Court. In the appeal, reliance was placed almost exclusively upon the case of Avery v. Georgia, 345 U.S. 559, 73 S.Ct. 891, 97 L.Ed. 1244, for the claim that Williams had been denied equal protection of the laws. The pertinence of that case to this turns on the time sequence in the two cases2 as well as on the relevant substantive facts.

Avery was convicted of rape on September 20, 1951, in Fulton County, Georgia—the same county in which Williams was tried a year and a half later. Avery's petit jury was drawn with yellow and white tickets precisely in the manner used later in the case of Williams. In Avery's case, no Negroes appeared on the list of 60 jurors put upon him at the trial, whereas here, four Negroes appeared on the list of 120 jurores from which Williams' jury was selected. Avery, however, challenged the array when the jury was put upon him; Williams did not. Avery's challenge was overruled, and after trial he appealed on the ground of discrimination in the selection of the jury. The Georgia Supreme Court disapproved of the use of yellow and white tickets but affirmed the judgment on the ground that no discrimination was actually shown.3 Certiorari in the Avery case was filed in this Court on July 28, 1952, nine weeks before the alleged murder in the Williams case. The ground, as here, was that the use of different-colored tickets for whites and Negroes deprived the defendant of equal protection of the laws. Avery's petition for certiorari was granted March 9, 1953, the day before the petit jury was put upon Williams. This Court reversed the Avery case on May 25, 1953, holding that Avery had made out a prima facie case of an unconstitutional discrimination by showing the use of different-colored tickets which the State had not rebutted.

While this Court's decision in the Avery case was thus rendered over two months after Williams' trial, it came a month before the amendment to his formal motion for new trial. Yet Williams' counsel did not rely upon the ground raised by the Avery decision until some six months later in his extraordinary motion for new trial.

As already stated, the extraordinary motion was dismissed by the trial court, and Williams again appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. That court affirmed the dismissal of the extraordinary motion. The court concluded that Williams, having failed to challenge the array when put upon him, had waived any objections to the jury's selection. The affidavits of Williams, his counsel, and his counsel's partner were deemed insufficient to excuse Williams' failure to challenge the array at the outset of the trial.

The court did not rest on this consideration. It urged that the facts inherent in the case contradicted the affidavits. The court said that its own decision in the Avery case, prior to the Williams trial, had fully set out the practice of using different-colored tickets in the selection of juries. 'Due diligence would certainly have required the defendant and his attorney to make themselves familiar with the opinions of this court on the question now raised. It follows that, for this reason, the motion for new trial was not sufficient as an extraordinary motion for new trial.' 210 Ga. 665, 668, 82 S.E.2d 217, 219.

In view of the entanglement of this case with our decision in Avery, we granted certiorari. 348 U.S. 854, 75 S.Ct. 83. Since the attorney appointed by the Georgia court advised the Clerk of this Court that he would not be in a position to present oral argument before this Court,4 we appointed amicus curiae to present argument on Williams' behalf. 348 U.S. 957, 75 S.Ct. 449.

In his brief on behalf of the State before the State Supreme Court, the Solicitor General of Fulton County had urged, inter alia, that there was no showing of a denial of equal protection in this case.5 On oral argu- ment here, however, the State, with commendable regard for its responsibility, agreed that the use of yellow and white tickets in this case was, in light of this Court's decision in Avery, a denial of equal protection, so that a new trial would be required but for the failure to challenge the array. We need only add that it was the system of selection and the resulting danger of abuse which was struck down in Avery and not an actual showing of discrimination on the basis of comparative numbers of Negroes and whites on the jury lists. The question now before us, in view of the State's concession, is whether the ruling of the Georgia Supreme Court rests upon an adequate nonfederal ground, so that this Court is without jurisdiction to review the Georgia court.

A state procedural rule which forbids the raising of federal questions at late stages in the case, or by any other than a prescribed method, has been recognized as a valid exercise of state power.6 The principle is clear enough. But the unique aspects of the never-ending new cases that arise require its individual application to particular circumstances. Thus, we would have a different question from that before us if the trial court had no power to consider Williams' constitutional objection at the belated time he raised it. But, where a State allows questions of this sort to be raised at a late stage and be determined by its courts as a matter of discretion, we are not concluded from assuming jurisdiction and deciding whether the state court action in the particular circumstances is, in effect, an avoidance of the federal right.7 A state court may not, in the exercise of its discretion, decline to entertain a constitutional claim while passing upon kindred issues raised in the same manner.

The Georgia courts have indicated many times that motions for new trial after verdict are not favored, and that extraordinary motions for new trial after final judgment are favored even less.8 But the Georgia statute provides for such motion,9 and it has been granted in 'exceptional' or 'extraordinary cases. The general rule is that the granting or denying of an extraordinary motion for new trial rests primarily in the discretion of the trial court, and the appellate court will not reverse except for a clear abuse of discretion. 10 In practice, however, the Georgia appellate courts have not hesitated to reverse and grant a new trial in exceptional cases....

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