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Williams v. Taylor

Supreme Court of the United States

October 4, 1999, Argued ; April 18, 2000, Decided

No. 98-8384


 [*367]  [***402]  [**1499]    JUSTICE STEVENS announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, III, and IV, and an opinion with respect to Parts II and V. 1 

 The questions presented are whether Terry Williams' constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel as defined in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 80 L. Ed. 2d 674, 104 S. Ct. 2052 (1984), was violated, and whether the judgment of the Virginia Supreme Court refusing to set aside his death sentence "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States," within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) (1994 ed., Supp. III).  [****12]  We answer both questions affirmatively.

On November 3, 1985, Harris Stone was found dead in his residence on Henry Street in Danville, Virginia. Finding no indication of a struggle, local officials determined that the cause of death was blood alcohol poisoning, and the case was considered closed. Six months after Stone's death, Terry Williams, who was then incarcerated in the "I" unit of the city jail for an unrelated offense, wrote a letter to the police stating that he had killed "'that man down on Henry Street'" and also stating that he "'did it'" to that "'lady down on West Green Street'" and was "'very sorry.'" The letter was unsigned, but it closed with a reference to "I cell." App. 41. The police readily identified Williams as its author, and, on April 25, 1986, they obtained several statements from him. In one Williams admitted that, after Stone refused to lend him "'a couple of dollars,'" he had killed Stone with a  [*368]  mattock and took the money from his wallet. 2 Id. at  [**1500]  4. In September 1986, Williams was convicted of robbery and capital murder.

 [****13]  At Williams' sentencing hearing, the prosecution proved that Williams had been convicted of armed robbery  [***403]  in 1976 and burglary and grand larceny in 1982. The prosecution also introduced the written confessions that Williams had made in April. The prosecution described two auto thefts and two separate violent assaults on elderly victims perpetrated after the Stone murder. On December 4, 1985, Williams had started a fire outside one victim's residence before attacking and robbing him. On March 5, 1986, Williams had brutally assaulted an elderly woman on West Green Street -- an incident he had mentioned in his letter to the police. That confession was particularly damaging because other evidence established that the woman was in a "vegetative state" and not expected to recover. Id. at 60. Williams had also been convicted of arson for setting a fire in the jail while awaiting trial in this case. Two expert witnesses employed by the State testified that there was a "high probability"  [*369]  that Williams would pose a serious continuing threat to society. Id. at 89.

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529 U.S. 362 *; 120 S. Ct. 1495 **; 146 L. Ed. 2d 389 ***; 2000 U.S. LEXIS 2837 ****; 68 U.S.L.W. 4263; 2000 Cal. Daily Op. Service 2945; 2000 Daily Journal DAR 3949; 13 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 225



Disposition: 163 F.3d 860, reversed and remanded.


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