Faculty Blog: Williams v. Pennsylvania Raises Major Concerns About U.S. Justice System

In his blog post on the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Williams v. Pennsylvania, Professor Eldred notes that in this and other cases, the Court makes proclamations about the nature of human psychology and decision-making without identifying the scientific source for its conclusions. Professor Eldred wrote that this latest decision is a missed opportunity by the Court that could undermine the long-term value of the decision, particularly when, as Professor Eldred notes, there was significant literature and research in this area available to the Court. Here, I want to address another issue raised by the facts of the case that should alarm anyone concerned about the fairness of our criminal justice system—namely, the role of the prosecutor. While I can’t say that this was another missed opportunity by the Court to address the question since it was not directly before the Court, the troubling story recounted by the facts of the case serves as an important backdrop and raises important questions about the quality of justice in death penalty and other cases.

 
In its recounting of the facts of the case, the Court noted that the prosecutor assigned to the murder case against Williams sent a two-page memorandum to the district attorney requesting approval to seek the death penalty. The then-district attorney, later Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, approved the request by writing: “Approved to proceed on the death penalty.” The case before the Court was about whether the district attorney who penned that approval could some 30 years later sit as one of the justices on the court called upon to vacate William’s stay of execution. The Supreme Court also noted a number of Brady violations that the prosecuting attorney allegedly committed in the case, as well as the fact that none of this information—the prosecution memo and approval by the district attorney or the possible Brady violations—came to light until the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas ordered the district attorney’s office to produce previously undisclosed files, many years after Williams’ trial.

All of this should give pause to anyone concerned about the quality and fairness of our justice system, particularly in death penalty cases. Consider first the two-page memo requesting authorization to pursue the death penalty and the brief one-sentence approval by the then-district attorney. Can such a cursory process fully and fairly consider all of the facts and factors that should be part of such an important decision? Of course, it could be argued that the memorandum was just a brief representation of a much fuller discussion of the case, and that may very well be true. However, if the role of the prosecutor is to do justice to all of the citizens, including the defendant, why wouldn’t the prosecutor’s office more fully memorialize such an important decision so that the public could see and understand how that decision was reached? If, on the other hand, this was the kind of cursory review suggested by these facts, how can it be said that Williams got a full and fair consideration, or that the prosecutor exercised his discretion in an appropriate manner?

Another important concern raised by the facts is the number of Brady violations allegedly committed by the prosecuting attorney. In any criminal case, Brady requires the prosecutor to disclose exculpatory information, as well as evidence that may lead to exculpatory information to the defendant. This is an affirmative duty, regardless whether the defendant requests the information. Here it seems that the prosecution may have withheld information related to a key government witness from the defense. Of course, without that information, the defense is denied the opportunity to cross-examine the witness on these issues or perhaps develop other evidence that could undermine the prosecution’s case. Brady violations can seriously undermine the fairness of a case. While the then-district attorney, later Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was not the prosecutor on the case, the prosecuting attorney did work under his supervision.

The third concern raised by the facts of this case is that none of this information came to light until many years after the prosecution, and not until a court ordered the prosecutor’s office to open its files on the case. The actions and conduct of that office lacked any transparency, and sadly, this is the norm in many prosecutors’ offices. Decisions and actions are far too often cloaked in secrecy and hidden behind bureaucratic hurdles that preclude any meaningful scrutiny by the public that is supposed to be served by the prosecutor.

While the Williams case did not address any of these questions directly, there is no denying that these facts are an important backdrop to the case and remind us that justice in our criminal system does not always happen. So much rides on the actions of the prosecutor, the office charged with doing justice. Far too often, the prosecutor gets caught up in the adversarial process and the need to “win” the case. When prosecutors lose sight of their role as ministers of justice to all of the citizens they serve, the kind of shoddy justice that Mr. Williams received is the result.

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