Habeas Law Changes Give Hope to Texas Inmate

     HOUSTON (CN) – Citing the “tremendous changes to capital-punishment jurisprudence” since the 1983 murder conviction of a Texas death row inmate, a federal judge gave him a month to make his habeas case.
     Arthur Williams, a 55-year-old black man, is on death row for shooting to death Daryl Shirley, a white Houston police detective who was in street clothes when he tried to serve Williams with a warrant outside Williams’ Houston apartment, on April 28, 1982.
     Williams describes the encounter on a website he set up to raise legal defense funds.
     “‘Hold it Williams; move motherfucker and you’re a dead man!’ These were the words shouted in my face as I was being roughly pushed up against the breezeway wall of the apartment complex,” Williams wrote in the 2012 post.
     Williams says Shirley was wearing a cowboy hat, checkered shirt, jeans and cowboy boots and pointing a 9 mm pistol at his face.
     Thinking he was being robbed, Williams says he grabbed Shirley’s gun and tried to wrestle it away from him. The struggle went to the ground and Williams pulled a .38 derringer pistol from his back pocket while he was on top of Shirley, who flipped Williams off over his head.
     Williams says that as he turned back towards Shirley it looked like Shirley was reaching for his gun, which had been knocked to the ground.
     “I didn’t know if he was reaching for the pistol or not, but I wasn’t taking any chances because I only had two shots and if he got ahold of his pistol he would have had many more shots, so I pointed the derringer and pulled the trigger,” Williams wrote.
     “The shot was deafening in the confined space of the breezeway, but I quickly recocked the hammer and pulled the trigger again.” Both shots hit Shirley, who fell dead in the complex parking lot.
     During Williams’ murder trial, witnesses called by the state and defense gave conflicting statements about whether Williams knew Shirley was a cop when he shot him, according to a recap in U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas’ Aug. 11 ruling on Williams’ habeas petition.
     A Harris County jury sentenced Williams to death for the murder in 1983, unmoved by his argument that because he had been robbed in the past by someone who falsely claimed they were police, if Shirley had identified himself as a policeman, he didn’t believe him.
     Williams’ state habeas case “inexplicably…took three decades to run its course,” Atlas wrote. He filed his federal habeas application in June 2013.
     Federal law requires prisoners to exhaust their state appeals before they can file a federal habeas case.
     Atlas found the evolution of habeas law, altered by several Supreme Court decisions since Williams’ 1983 conviction, works in the man’s favor.
     “Given the significant legal developments in the last three decades, the court has serious concerns about the integrity of Williams’ capital conviction and death sentence,” she wrote.
     As a “senior status” federal judge, Atlas, a Bill Clinton appointee, is semi-retired and has the option to take fewer cases but still gets her full salary.
     She gave three reasons why Williams’ habeas petition survived the state’s motion for summary judgment: the prosecution used its peremptory strikes to eliminate all six African-Americans from the jury pool, the defense called no witnesses during the trial’s punishment phase and didn’t present any mitigating evidence about Williams’ background.
     The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1985 case Batson v. Kentucky ruled that prosecutors in a criminal case cannot reject jurors based solely on their race.
     The high court’s Batson ruling came down when Williams’ appeal was pending before the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals. Williams took the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded the case and the state appeals court kicked it down to the trial court.
     In a 1988 Batson hearing a prosecutor justified the state’s use of strikes to eliminate the six black potential jurors, and the appellate court denied Williams’ claim.
     Despite that ruling, Atlas put Williams’ fate in his and his attorney’s abilities to research and write legal arguments, ordering him to find case-law showing that he was unconstitutionally convicted in light of the changes to habeas law. She gave him until Sept. 14 to respond.
     Williams is represented by Stanley Schneider with Schneider & McKinney of Houston.     
     Asked what he thought about the ruling, Schneider said Atlas’ clearly written list of the hurdles Williams must clear to prevail demonstrates it was a “thoughtful” order.
     For himself he said it means one thing: “I have a lot of work to do.”
     Texas has not set Williams’ execution date. It has executed 10 prisoners this year, more than any other state, with six more scheduled to die before 2016.

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