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Williams v. Stirling

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

January 28, 2019

BRYAN P. STIRLING, Director, South Carolina Department of Corrections; WILLIE D. DAVIS, Warden of Kirkland Correctional Institution, Respondents - Appellants, and JOSEPH MCFADDEN, Warden of Lieber Correctional Institution, Respondent. FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF GERMANY, Amicus Supporting Appellee.

          Argued: October 31, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Greenville. J. Michelle Childs, District Judge. (6:16-cv-01655-JMC)


          Melody Jane Brown, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF SOUTH CAROLINA, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellants.

          Seth C. Farber, WINSTON & STRAWN LLP, New York, New York, for Appellee.

          Alice Tsier, WHITE & CASE LLP, New York, New York, for Amicus Curiae.

         ON BRIEF:

          Alan Wilson, Attorney General, Donald J. Zelenka, Deputy Attorney General, Alphonso Simon Jr., Senior Assistant Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF SOUTH CAROLINA, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellants.

          William Harry Ehlies, II, Greenville, South Carolina; Teresa L. Norris, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellee.

          Owen C. Pell, Amity Boye, WHITE & CASE LLP, New York, New York, for Amicus Curiae.

          Before NIEMEYER, AGEE and DIAZ, Circuit Judges.

          AGEE, Circuit Judge.

         After shooting and killing his former girlfriend, Charles Christopher Williams was convicted by a South Carolina jury of kidnapping, murder, and possession of a firearm during a violent crime. He was sentenced to death for the murder. After exhausting state remedies, Williams petitioned the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court denied or stayed all of Williams' claims, except Ground Six, which asserted a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel resulting from trial counsel's failure to investigate potentially mitigating evidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome ("FAS"). On this ground, the district court granted Williams' petition and the State now appeals. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the district court.


         On the morning of September 3, 2003, Williams entered a Greenville, South Carolina grocery store where his former girlfriend, Maranda Williams, worked. He confronted her, then forced her into a store office, where he held her at gunpoint for approximately 90 minutes. During this period she called 911 and hostage negotiators tried to convince Williams to release her. She eventually attempted to escape, but Williams pursued her, shooting her four times and killing her. Upon hearing the shots, law enforcement officers entered the store and apprehended Williams. Following his arrest, Williams gave a statement in which he confessed to the crimes for which he was later charged. In February 2005, a Greenville County, South Carolina, jury convicted Williams of kidnapping, murder, and possession of a firearm during a violent crime.

         At trial, Williams was represented by attorneys William Nettles and John Mauldin, both of whom were experienced in capital cases. Nettles had handled approximately five death penalty cases through trial and sentencing, as well as a handful of post-conviction relief cases. Mauldin had overseen "close to a dozen [capital cases] to verdict" and worked on nearly three times as many cases after a death notice had been filed. J.A. 493- 94.

         In preparation for the penalty phase, Nettles and Mauldin assembled a defense team that included, among others, social worker Jan Vogelsang, clinical neuropsychologist Dr. James Evans, clinical psychiatrist Dr. Robert Richards, neurologist Dr. David Griesemer, and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Seymour Halleck. As part of the investigation, Vogelsang gathered information about Williams' upbringing. She interviewed Williams' father, who told her that he had observed Williams' mother, Daisy Huckaby, drinking while pregnant, though he was unable to provide any additional details. Vogelsang also interviewed Williams' sister, who recalled that Huckaby drank while pregnant with Williams, but could not say how much. (The record indicates that Vogelsang either failed to ask Huckaby about her drinking or that Huckaby denied drinking while pregnant.)

         The defense team experts assessed Williams for neurological and psychological issues. Following an evaluation, Dr. Evans concluded that Williams suffered neurological impairments as the result of frontal lobe damage and, consequently, had learning difficulties. Dr. Richards examined Williams and diagnosed him with bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Finally, following an MRI and neurological exam the week prior to the trial, Dr. Griesemer reported that, though there were some cognitive issues, Williams' MRI showed a normal brain.

         During the penalty phase, [1] defense counsel presented mitigating evidence of Williams' troubled childhood-including his mother's alcoholism-as well as his mental illness and difficulties in school. To this end, counsel presented testimony from Williams' father and sister; Williams' first grade teacher; a co-worker of Daisy Huckaby; and their experts, including Dr. Richards, who testified about his diagnoses, and Dr. Halleck, who opined that Williams suffered from major depressive disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder but was able to, with difficulty, conform his behavior to the requirements of the law. Moreover, through his cross-examination of the state psychiatrist, Nettles elicited additional mitigation testimony, including information about Williams' trouble with his parents' divorce, Huckaby's alcoholism, Williams' difficulty in school, and his untreated attention deficit disorder. In turn, the State alleged a single aggravating factor: "Murder was committed while in the commission of kidnapping." J.A. 809.

         On the second day of penalty phase deliberations, the jury sent a note to the trial court stating it was deadlocked nine to three in favor of death. Williams moved for a mistrial but the trial court denied the motion and instead gave an Allen[2] charge. The jury resumed its deliberations and, after three hours and 45 minutes, returned a sentence of death. The Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed Williams' convictions and death sentence, State v. Williams, 690 S.E.2d 62 (S.C. 2010), and the United States Supreme Court denied his petition for a writ of certiorari, Williams v. South Carolina, 562 U.S. 899 (2010).

         In November 2010, Williams filed a petition for post-conviction relief in the Greenville County, South Carolina Circuit Court ("PCR court"), asserting errors that included trial counsel's failure to investigate signs that Williams suffered from FAS- namely, evidence of Huckaby's drinking during her pregnancy and Williams' corresponding brain damage. In January 2013, the PCR court held an evidentiary hearing at which three FAS experts testified on Williams' behalf. Dr. Richard Adler, a forensic psychologist, diagnosed Williams with Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a form of FAS. Neuropsychologist Dr. Paul Connor testified that his assessment of Williams indicated severe functional impairments and damage to the corpus callosum, all consistent with or symptomatic of FAS. Finally, Dr. Natalie Novick Brown, a forensic psychologist, concluded that Williams' executive functions-including "self-regulation" and "behavior control"-were impaired due to FAS, leading to behavioral difficulties, including impulse control problems and coping skills equivalent to those of a nine year old. J.A. 588. All three experts acknowledged that at the time of the trial in 2005, a widely recognized protocol to forensically assess FAS in the criminal justice context had not yet been fully developed, but that individual practitioners had been addressing FAS and had developed a framework for diagnosing the condition and treating its symptoms.[3]

         Trial counsel also testified, but neither could recall a mitigation investigation into FAS, or why such an investigation was not conducted. Mauldin testified that although FAS awareness had become much more prevalent in the years since Williams' trial, the issue "certainly existed well before" the 2003 American Bar Association Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases.[4] J.A. 500. The commentary in these Guidelines designated FAS as a potentially mitigating factor to be investigated by counsel in capital cases. He further acknowledged that, in hindsight, several issues should have indicated a potential FAS diagnosis for Williams when he was preparing for trial. First, Mauldin testified that he had reports in his files that indicated Huckaby drank during her pregnancy. Mauldin acknowledged that at the time of the trial, such drinking should have signaled a potential FAS issue for him. With this information about Huckaby's drinking, he should have, as a first step, directed a neurologist to conduct whatever testing would have been necessary to determine whether Williams was affected by FAS. Nonetheless, Mauldin testified, "I honestly cannot say why [Huckaby's drinking] wasn't a red flag for me eight years ago." J.A. 500. "[A]s extraordinary as that seems," he continued, "I can't explain why there was no discussion or follow-up on that." J.A. 512. Second, Mauldin testified that the developmental delays and learning problems exhibited by Williams were issues he should have associated with FAS. Finally, Mauldin also explained that some of the follow-up information the defense team experts were seeking was of the type he should have associated with FAS. Specifically, Mauldin testified that at the time of the trial he was aware of the correlation between a significantly smaller head circumference at birth and FAS and knew that Dr. Richards, as of August 2004, had become interested in potential brain damage and had requested records containing the circumference of Williams' head at birth and recommended an MRI of Williams' brain. Nonetheless, Mauldin was unable to explain why the records were not produced to Dr. Richards, or why an MRI was not conducted until the week prior to the beginning of the trial in February 2005, rather than in August 2004.

         Nettles testified that he was aware of the ABA Guidelines mandating investigation of mitigating evidence, including personal, family, and medical history, as part of penalty phase preparations.[5] But he could not remember at what point he developed an "understanding" of FAS. J.A. 465. He did recall that the subject of Huckaby's drinking came up, but testified that he was focused on it as evidence of Williams' difficult childhood, not of FAS. He also recalled some evidence of neurological damage. Nonetheless, he did not recall any discussion about FAS or FAS being considered as a potentially mitigating factor.

         In denying Williams' petition, the PCR court concluded:

[T]his Court finds that trial counsel had evidence that [Williams'] mother drank during pregnancy, and that trial counsel was aware of the resulting complications, including brain damage. Trial counsel also had evidence that [Williams] possibly suffered brain damage, based on Dr. Evans' reports. Trial counsel presented this information, along with other mitigation evidence, to the defense experts. Considering all of the information it had available and in consultation with its experts, trial counsel developed a cogent strategy to present mitigation evidence- including evidence of the mother's alcohol addiction-but also made a strategic decision not to present to the jury evidence of brain damage or a diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (though trial counsel was unable to articulate the reasons for that strategic decision). Instead, trial counsel's strategy was to present mitigation evidence regarding [Williams'] troubled childhood and his [other disorders], as diagnosed by defense experts.

J.A. 665 (emphases added). Finally, the PCR court also found that, even if Williams had presented evidence of FAS to the jury, it was unlikely that the jury would have returned a different sentence. The PCR court based its conclusion in part on a survey of eight jury verdicts from other jurisdictions demonstrating that defendants are sentenced to death in spite of mitigating evidence of FAS or organic brain damage. The South Carolina Supreme Court dismissed Williams' petition for writ of certiorari, Williams v. South Carolina, No. 2016-MO-012, 2016 WL 1458174 (S.C. Apr. 13, 2016), as did the United States Supreme Court, Williams v. South Carolina, 137 S.Ct. 1812 (2017).

         After initiating habeas proceedings in the district court in November 2016, Williams filed an amended § 2254 petition in February 2017, asserting 15 grounds for relief, of which only the first six are at issue on appeal. Ground One asserted that the trial court's Allen charge was improperly coercive. Ground Two asserted that the State elicited prejudicial testimony from its forensic psychiatrist by asking her if she became involved only in cases in which "the death penalty may be considered." Compare J.A. 23-25, with J.A. 276. Grounds Three and Four asserted that trial counsel failed to properly object to a series of allegedly prejudicial comments made during the State's closing argument. Ground Five asserted that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to assert Williams' right to seek assistance from the German government under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations based on his German citizenship. And of particular importance to this appeal, Ground Six asserted Williams was denied effective assistance of counsel after trial counsel failed to investigate evidence of FAS.

         The case was referred to a magistrate judge, who recommended the petition be granted as to Ground Six, and that Williams' death sentence be vacated as a result. The magistrate judge concluded that the PCR court's finding that trial counsel "made a strategic decision" was unreasonable given that this finding was directly contradicted by trial counsel's PCR testimony. Compare J.A. 885, with J.A. 665. The magistrate judge also concluded that Williams established prejudice: because the State put forward only one aggravating factor and "the jury was deprived of powerful [mitigating] evidence," a reasonable probability existed that the jury would have returned a life sentence had this additional mitigating evidence been presented and credited by the jury. J.A. 888. Finally, the ...

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