The Case of Nanon Williams
The case of Nanon Williams, a juvenile
offender sentenced to death in Texas, is an example of the
inherent problems of capital punishment for juvenile offenders.
Nanon Williams was sentenced to death in 1995 for the 1992
shooting death of Adonius Collier in Harris County, Texas.
Nanon grew up surrounded by drugs, which his
parents manufactured and sold. Shortly after he was born, his
mother was incarcerated for her drug activities. During her two
years in prison, Nanon was left in the custody of his father,
who was subsequently incarcerated until Nanon was five or six
years old. While his father was in prison, his mother remarried
a man who was also involved in the manufacture and sale of drugs.
Nanon’s earliest childhood memory is an
incident in which he was stabbed in the leg by a group of
children who were attempting to steal his tricycle. He was five
years old. When he was seven years old, he witnessed the brutal
shooting death of his uncle in his family’s home. According to
Nanon was covered in blood as he tried to revive his uncle
following the shooting.
When he was eleven years old, his family’s
ranch was raided in the middle of the night by dozens of federal
agents. During the raid, Nanon and his sister watched their
parents’ arrest before they were taken into custody. When he was
twelve years old and living with his grandparents (his sixth
home), he learned of the shooting death of his biological father.
When Nanon’s mother was later released from prison, the family
lived on welfare. Nanon remained depressed and suicidal
throughout his childhood and teenage years. He has stated of his
life, “I became a full time hustler, drug dealer and many other
things, but I was never allowed to be innocent; I lost that the
day I was born.”
Throughout his teenage years, Nanon continued
to sell drugs and was shuttled in and out of the juvenile
justice system. He continued to go to school, and even paid his
own tuition to a private school for a short time, where he was a
football star and was courted by college scouts.
At the age of seventeen, Nanon was detained
by authorities and extradited to Texas for a crime he maintains
he knew nothing about. He remains incarcerated on death row in
Texas, where he writes poems, publishes a newsletter (the
“Williams Report”), and reaches out to other young offenders on
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
The case of Nanon Williams, child offender
facing execution on flawed evidence
"Our founders dedicated this country to the cause of
human dignity, the rights of every person, and the
possibilities of every life
President Bush, State of the Union address, 28 January
1. Human rights begin at home
"Because the promotion of human rights is
an important national interest, the United States seeks to hold
governments accountable to their obligations under universal
human rights norms and international human rights instruments".
US State Department(1)
It is a practice widely condemned. Four
current US Supreme Court Justices have called it "shameful" and
a "relic of the past"; a recent meeting of more than 20 Nobel
Peace Laureates described it as "unconscionable"; the United
Nations Human Rights Committee "deplores" it; and the Secretary
General of the 45-member state Council of Europe has said that
it must be "vehemently criticized". China has legislated against
it. So too have Yemen and Pakistan. Iran is considering such
legislation. The Soviet Union did not practice it. The United
Kingdom stopped doing so in 1933. Yet, today Nanon Williams and
dozens of other prisoners await execution in the United States
of America for crimes committed when they were still children.
There are 192 state parties to the Convention
on the Rights of the Child, a treaty banning the imposition of
the death penalty against child offenders, those who were under
18 at the time of the crime. The United States is not one of
them, joining only Somalia in so far failing to ratify this
treaty. The USA has ratified the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights, which contains the same prohibition, but
lodged a reservation purporting to exempt itself from the ban.
The US reservation has been widely condemned as invalid,
including by the body set up by the treaty to oversee its
implementation. In October 2002, the Inter-American Commission
on Human Rights concluded that the ban on the use of the death
penalty against child offenders had become a jus cogens
norm of international law, from which there can be no exemption:
"The acceptance of this norm crosses political and ideological
boundaries", wrote the Inter-American Commission, "[T]his
proscription binds the community of States, including the United
Nanon Williams was sentenced to death in 1995
for a murder committed in 1992 when he was 17. He is one of more
than 70 people who are threatened with execution in the United
States for crimes committed when they were younger than 18 years
old. It is no idle threat. The USA accounts for over 70 per cent
of such executions known since 1998 - including four of only
five reported in the world in the past two years. It is an
aspect of the death penalty which has become an almost
exclusively US practice.
Seven countries other than the USA are
reported to have carried out executions of child offenders since
1990. The USA has carried out 19 times as many such executions
as five of these countries (China, Democratic Republic of Congo,
Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, one execution each), six times
more than Pakistan (3), and nearly three times more than the
next worst offender, Iran (7). At the time of writing, Iran was
considering legislation to abolish the death penalty for child
offenders. Yemen, China and Pakistan have abolished this use of
capital punishment - the recent executions recorded in the
latter two countries indicate problems in enforcing nationwide
compliance with the law. The Democratic Republic of Congo has
abolished the special military courts which led to the execution
of a child offender in 2000. "If we act wisely", the US State
Department has asserted, "future historians looking back at this
millennium will identify the growth and consolidation of
democracy and human rights as both our greatest achievement and
our most important legacy."(3) On the question of the death
penalty and child offenders, the USA is today situated on the
wrong side of history.
Nanon Williams himself is on death row in
Texas, which accounts for a third of the country’s condemned
child offenders, and 13 of the 22 executions of child offenders
in the USA since 1977. Six of the last seven such executions
were carried out by Texas executioners, and three more are
scheduled there for the first half of 2004.(4) If the USA is the
world’s worst offender on this fundamental human rights issue,
Texas is clearly its perpetrator-in-chief.
The affront to international standards goes
deeper in Nanon Williams’s case. There are serious doubts about
his guilt in the crime for which he was sentenced to die. The
United Nations Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights
of Those Facing the Death Penalty (which also prohibit the
execution of child offenders) hold that the death penalty may
only be imposed "when the guilt of the person charged is based
upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an
alternative explanation of the facts".
There is an alternative explanation in this
case, an alternative to which the jury was unable to give
serious consideration due to a breakdown in the adversarial
system. False ballistics evidence presented by the state - a
possible sign of systemic problems at the Houston Police
Department’s crime laboratory outlined in this report - went
unchallenged by an unprepared defence lawyer. Two of the
original trial jurors have suggested that the outcome of the
case would have been different if the jury had been provided
with the evidence as it is known now. The UN Safeguards require
that capital defendants receive adequate assistance "at all
stages of the proceedings", a standard not met in this case.
After hearing the post-conviction evidence, a state judge found
that it had been the state’s prime witness, not Nanon Williams,
who had first shot the victim. The judge decided that Nanon
Williams should receive a new trial because he had been denied
his right to effective assistance of counsel. In 2002, however,
the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected her recommendation
with minimal explanation.
In 1998, the UN Special Rapporteur on
extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions emphasised that
the finality of the death penalty demands that all possible
safeguards be strictly respected at every step, and stated that
"all mitigating factors must be taken into account". A mental
health expert has said that Nanon Williams suffered from post-traumatic
stress disorder as a result of his violent upbringing. The jury
was presented with no such expert evidence, and received a
limited account of his abusive past and its impact on him. At
the same time, the prosecutor made arguments for execution that
were not only potentially inflammatory, but also flouted a
central principle underlying the international ban on the
execution of child offenders, namely a young person’s potential
for rehabilitation and change.
Prosecutors in Harris County, where Nanon
Williams was tried, have made a habit of obtaining death
sentences against people for crimes committed when they were
under 18 years old. More than a third of the child offenders on
death row in Texas, and about one in seven of those currently
condemned nationwide, were prosecuted in Harris County. No whole
state in the USA, apart from Alabama (and the rest of
Texas), has more child offenders on death row than this single
Texas jurisdiction. At the time of writing, Harris County had
set three execution dates for child offenders in the first half
of 2004 (see footnote 4).
Whether Nanon Williams is innocent or guilty
of the crime for which he was sent to death row, or whether he "deserves"
to die under US law, Amnesty International opposes his execution
in any event, as it does all executions. The death penalty not
only runs the risk of irrevocable error, it is costly - to the
public purse, as well as in social and psychological terms; it
has no special deterrent effect; it tends to be applied
discriminatorily on grounds of race and class; it prolongs the
suffering of the murder victim’s family, and extends that
suffering to the loved ones of the condemned prisoner. It is a
symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it. It is an
affront to human dignity. It should be abolished.
The fact that the USA is willing to use the
death penalty against children when a majority of countries have
stopped executing anyone directly contradicts US claims to be a
progressive force for human rights. Indeed, on the issue of the
death penalty and child offenders, the United States could be
said to be the least progressive country in the world.
2. The conviction
"Did that defendant kill Adonius Collier?
You know that he did." Prosecutor, closing argument at the
trial of Nanon Williams, 1995.
Nineteen-year-old Adonius Collier was shot
dead in a wooded area of Hermann Park in Houston, Texas, on the
night of 13/14 May 1992. Three years later, on 26 July 1995, a
jury convicted Nanon Williams of his murder. The state argued
that he had shot Collier, first with a .25mm calibre handgun,
and then, from close range, with a shotgun to the head. Nanon
Williams has consistently maintained that he did not shoot
Seven young people drove to Hermann Park on
the night in question for the purpose of a drug deal. The trial
record reflects that Nanon Williams went with Vaal Guevara,
Patrick Smith and Elaine Winn to buy crack cocaine from Adonius
Collier and Emmade Rasul, whose girlfriend Stephanie Anderson
was also at the scene. Apart from Stephanie Anderson, who was 14
at the time, Nanon Williams was the youngest of these seven
According to the state’s theory at trial,
Nanon Williams, Vaal Guevara, Emmade Rasul and Adonius Collier
got out of their cars and went into the wooded area, while
Patrick Smith, Elaine Winn, and Stephanie Anderson remained in
the two parked vehicles. Emmade Rasul and Adonius Collier were
unarmed. At some point shots were fired. Two hit 19-year-old
Emmade Rasul, one passing through his face and out of his neck,
and the other lodging in his foot as he fled the scene. He
survived. Adonius Collier was killed - shot twice in the head,
first from a small calibre pistol and then by a shotgun.
The only physical evidence collected at the
scene was a bag of cocaine found next to Collier’s body; one
live, unfired .25mm calibre bullet; a baseball cap, and a pair
of flip flops (sandals) shed by Emmade Rasul as he fled the
shooting. The police recovered a single gun involved in the
crime - Vaal Guevara’s .22 Derringer Magnum, found at his
apartment. The .25 handgun and the shotgun were never located.
Arrest warrants were issued for Vaal Guevara
and Nanon Williams. After securing a lawyer, 21-year-old Vaal
Guevara turned himself into the police. He admitted that the
Derringer was his, that he used it in drug transactions, and
that he had taken it to Hermann Park that night. In a subsequent
audio-taped statement to the police, Vaal Guevara said that he
had fired his .22 Derringer at Adonius Collier.
Nanon Williams was arrested in August 1992 in
his home state of California, and extradited to Texas. In a
police line-up soon after Williams’s extradition, Emmade Rasul
identified Nanon Williams as the person who had shot him in the
The defence theory at the trial was that Vaal
Guevara had fired the first shot that struck Adonius Collier,
that this shot had been fatal, and that whoever fired the
shotgun had shot a corpse and was therefore not guilty of murder.
The defence presented no expert testimony to support this or to
refute the state’s theory that Nanon Williams had fired both
shots. This allowed the Harris County prosecutor, in his closing
argument urging the jury to convict Nanon Williams of capital
murder, variously to characterize the defence as "implausible",
"ridiculous", "absolutely ludicrous", "about
the stupidest thing you ever heard", and so "absurd"
that to present the arguments against it was "almost to
insult your intelligence". He told the jurors that the
defence lawyer was allotted 45 minutes to give her closing
arguments, but that even she spoke "with you for 45 years, I
don’t think anyone ever would, you would ever believe any of
that for one second".
The jury sided with the state and voted to
convict. If the jurors had heard the evidence as it is known
now, would it have viewed the defence position as implausible?
2.1 Accomplice testimony: Vaal Guevara
and Elaine Winn
"Keep a couple of things in mind if you
didn’t like some of the witnesses I brought you. I didn’t write
this script and I didn’t cast this play. Nanon over there did.
He wrote this script, he cast the characters. I didn’t."
Prosecutor, closing argument.
Vaal Guevara was initially charged with
capital murder. However, he agreed to plead guilty to a reduced
charge of "illegal investment" (in drugs) with a recommended 10-year
prison sentence, in exchange for his testimony against Nanon
Williams. Testimony provided under such circumstances is
notoriously unreliable. Serious questions have been raised about
the reliability of Vaal Guevara’s trial testimony, which formed
the primary evidence against Williams. Even the prosecutor has
since admitted that it was "apparently not at all truthful".
Before the trial, the prosecution offered
Nanon Williams a deal to plead guilty in return for a 45-year
prison sentence. He refused. He recalls: "My attorney believed
me to be innocent of the crime, but asked me to seriously
consider taking a life sentence instead of risking a trial and
being condemned to death. Needless to say, I did not take it,
but did I consider it? HELL NO!!! I am no choir boy, and yes, I
am guilty of many things, but not of killing anyone."(6) In a
post-conviction affidavit, his trial lawyer suggested that "the
impetus behind the state’s offer of a life sentence could have
been that they realized that they had no physical evidence to
present against my client, and they were reliant on accomplice
Vaal Guevara’s testimony identified Nanon
Williams as the person who had shot Adonius Collier, the only
witness to do so at the trial. Guevara testified that he himself
had not shot at Collier. The state did not seek to correct him,
despite the fact that Guevara had earlier told police that he
had fired at the victim. On cross-examination by the defence
lawyer, Guevara said that he did not remember telling the police
that he had shot at Collier. The jury was removed from the
courtroom, and Guevara’s taped statement to the police was
played back to him. After the jurors had returned, Guevara told
them that he had shot at Collier with his .22 Derringer as
Collier had come towards him. He said that he was absolutely
positive that he had not hit anyone because "my Derringer
couldn’t reach that far".
The prosecution presented Elaine Winn to
corroborate Vaal Guevara’s testimony. Although she said that she
had not seen anything of the shooting, her testimony suggested
that Nanon Williams had gone to the park with a .25 handgun and
a shotgun, that he had robbed the victim (see "a tenuous
aggravator", below), and that he had returned to the car with
the shotgun. Elaine Winn was Vaal Guevara’s girlfriend and
Adonius Collier’s former girlfriend. She had arranged the drug
deal. She was not charged with any offence.
The prosecutor recognized that the jury might
question Winn and Guevara’s credibility. Of Elaine Winn, he
suggested in his closing arguments to the jury that "100 per
cent or the very least 98 or 99 per cent of what she told you
rang true." He said that if the jurors, however, wanted "to give
that capital murderer, that stone cold killer every benefit of
the doubt, we have the corroboration. You don’t need to agonize
over it for hours or days... if you want to give the defendant
the benefit of the doubt, though he certainly does not deserve
any benefit of the doubt, there is a bunch of corroboration".
However, there was no other witness who put Nanon Williams in
possession of the shotgun. Emmade Rasul, who had walked into the
crime scene with Williams, said that he had never seen him with
The prosecutor also told the jurors not to
worry if they were concerned about Guevara’s veracity: "If you
want, you can go ahead and disregard everything [Vaal Guevara]
said... I still have enough. There’s still more than enough
evidence to convict the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt,
maybe even pretty close to all doubt." He explained to the jury
that the state did not have enough evidence to prove Vaal
Guevara guilty of aggravated robbery or capital murder: "How
could we ever prove to folks like you beyond a reasonable doubt
that he’s guilty of aggravated robbery or capital murder? What
can we do with him? We can make him a deal. We try to get the
best testimony out of him we can."
Five days after the end of Nanon Williams’s
trial, Vaal Guevara was convicted of "illegal investment". As
agreed, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison (he had already
been in jail for three years). When he came up for parole in
1999, the prosecutor from the Williams trial protested. In a
letter to the Pardons and Parole Division of the Texas
Department of Criminal Justice in August 1999, he wrote:
"Prior to my becoming involved in the case
[Guevara] entered a plea bargain for which he was to receive 10
years in prison... in exchange for his cooperation and truthful
testimony in William’s [sic] trial. Evidence showed the
defendant and Williams were purchasing drugs from Adonius
Collier and Collier’s friend at the time of the murder.
[Guevara] claimed to have been involved only in the drug
transaction and that he did not know that Williams planned a
robbery. At trial Guevara was very evasive and apparently not at
all truthful. We could not prove his story false at the time.
During this year subsequent firearms testing was performed and
an additional witness was located in preparation for a writ
hearing on Williams [sic] case. The additional evidence
indicates that [Guevara] rather than merely being a witness,
likely participated in Collier’s murder." (8)
The prosecution’s case in 1995 was built
using the "best testimony" it could extract from Vaal Guevara
and the "expert" testimony of Robert Baldwin. It is now known
that Adonius Collier was first hit in the head by a bullet from
Vaal Guevara’s handgun. Robert Baldwin’s trial testimony to the
contrary was simply wrong.
2.2 The "failsafe" evidence: Robert
Baldwin, the state’s expert
"There’s a fail-safe involved in all of
this. That’s why we forwarded all of the firearm’s evidence to
Bob Baldwin." Prosecutor’s closing argument
An important part of the "more than enough"
evidence to which the prosecutor referred came from Robert
Baldwin, a Houston Police Department ballistics expert. Robert
Baldwin told the jury that he was in no doubt that the bullet
found in Adonius Collier’s head was .25 caliber, thereby
indicating that Nanon Williams was the shooter. Questioned by
the prosecutor, Baldwin testified that it was not possible that
the bullet could have come from Vaal Guevara’s .22 Derringer:
Q: Is there any way in the
world based on your training, your expertise, and the
examinations that you made, that the bullet... was shot
out of that Derringer?
A: No sir. It’s the wrong
Robert Baldwin also stated that the bullet
from the victim’s head and the bullet found in Emmade Rasul’s
foot had both been fired from a .25 automatic weapon, even
though they looked different.(9) In his closing arguments,
urging the jury to convict Nanon Williams, the prosecutor
suggested that the jury "need not agonize" in its
decision-making because "there’s a fail-safe involved in all
of this. That’s why we forwarded all of the firearm’s evidence
to Bob Baldwin." The prosecutor stressed the importance of
"Robert Baldwin, uncontradicted,
told you both were .25 caliber bullets... He told you
absolutely, positively certain that they couldn’t be
fired out of the Derringer."
Robert Baldwin’s testimony remained "uncontradicted",
not because it was "fail-safe" evidence, but because the defence
lawyer had come to the trial unprepared on the ballistics issue.
In a post-conviction affidavit, she admitted: "I did not do
any testing of the firearms evidence. I did not ask the trial
court for any funding for ballistics, firearms or forensic
pathology experts. I reviewed the state’s file, talked to my
client, and talked to the co-defendant’s attorney about the
weapons that were involved." It has become clear that this
was not enough.
2.3 A question of caliber: The handgun
"I do not know what the functional
condition of that Derringer is, I have never checked it".
Robert Baldwin, trial testimony.
Robert Baldwin had never test-fired Vaal
Guevara’s .22 Derringer. Such testing, to allow comparison of
the test bullets with those recovered from the crime, is routine.
It beggars belief that the state came to trial intending to seek
the defendant’s execution without having tested the only weapon
recovered from the crime. The incomprehensibility of this
failure is compounded by the fact that Vaal Guevara had admitted
to firing the gun at the crime scene, at the victim. As
Nanon Williams’s appeal to federal court argued:
"It is unfathomable that the only
weapon recovered in a capital murder was never tested.
It is doubly hard to believe in Mr Williams’ case,
wherein identity of the shooter was a central issue
affecting both guilt and punishment. Even if the
firearms inspector had absentmindedly omitted to test-fire
the gun, it is hard to comprehend how the case would
have proceeded to trial without the prosecutor having
alerted to the omission and corrected it. From the pre-trial
perspective of the prosecutor, this would have been a
case about ballistics, because ballistics was the
central physical evidence in a case otherwise heavily
reliant on accomplice-witness testimony".(10)
Whatever the reason for the state’s failure,
it should have been revealed at the trial if the defence lawyer
had been alert to it. However, as this lawyer has since admitted,
she was not.
At the post-conviction evidentiary hearing in
1998, the trial lawyer acknowledged that it had been a
fundamental lapse on her part to proceed to trial without having
secured the proper testing of the Derringer. She stated that, as
a former prosecutor, she had assumed that the testing had been
carried out. She said: "that is probably my failing, because
as an ex-prosecutor that is the practice that I did. I mean,
it’s normal to presume, in a homicide case, that all missiles
and all firearms are submitted for testing."
The moment during Robert Baldwin’s testimony
that the defence lawyer now admits should have struck her like
"a lightning bolt" was instead allowed to pass unchallenged.
During his trial testimony, Robert Baldwin had stated that he
did "not know what the functional condition of that Derringer is,
I have never checked it". At the post-conviction evidentiary
hearing three years later, the defence lawyer said:
It was the first time that I
learned that it hadn’t been checked, and had I thought
it through, you know, at that particular moment, I would
also - would have reached the conclusion that he
obviously couldn’t have made a comparison... So I just
felt like it should have been a lightning bolt at that
point that the Derringer was not submitted.
The defence lawyer admitted that at this
point she should have asked the judge to halt the proceedings so
that the Derringer could be test fired. In an affidavit she
It was negligence on my part not
to attempt to stop the trial at this point, after Mr
Baldwin had given evidence that the bullet could not
possibly have come from Vaal Guevara’s Derringer, but
then admitted that he never checked the gun. It was
definitely not trial strategy to do nothing - missed the
importance of his testimony at the trial.
After the trial, Nanon Williams’s appeal
lawyer requested independent testing of Vaal Guevara’s .22
Derringer Magnum and the bullets. Before these items were
released by the Harris County authorities, the prosecutors
asserted that they would have Robert Baldwin test fire the
Derringer. In a letter to the prosecutor’s office, he wrote that
the bullet taken from the murder victim’s head had been fired
from the bottom barrel of the .22 Derringer - in direct
contradiction to what he had testified at trial. His January
1998 letter also stated that the Derringer "had not been
previously submitted to the laboratory for testing or comparison
to the fired evidence". Robert Baldwin also confirmed that the
bullet extracted from Emmade Rasul’s foot was not fired from the
Derringer, but was consistent with a .25 automatic weapon.(11)
This was bolstered by further expert evidence.
At post-conviction hearings held in September 1998 and December
2000,(12) forensic firearms expert Robert L. Singer, who was the
laboratory director for the Tarrant County (Fort Worth) Medical
Examiner’s Office, testified that the bullet in Adonius
Collier’s head and the bullet in Emmade Rasul’s foot were
clearly of different calibers. He said that this "should have
been noted by a competent firearms examiner at the beginning of
any examination", adding that "certainly to the trained naked
eye, it should be obvious without very much difficulty at all"
that the two bullets were of different caliber. He testified
that the bullet from the victim’s head had been shot from the
.22 Derringer, and the one extracted from the survivor’s foot
was a .25mm caliber bullet.
In an affidavit in 1998, Ronald Singer stated
that Robert Baldwin’s trial testimony that both bullets could
have been fired from the same gun "at best demonstrates extreme
carelessness on his part, and at worst calls into question his
expertise." Correct identification of the bullet taken from the
victim’s head, Singer continued, "might have materially affected
the outcome of the trial".
Would the jury’s verdict at the guilt phase
of the trial have been different if it had heard this evidence?
One of the jurors from the trial has stated:
"Had I known that the other bullet
found in the head of the victim came from the
co-defendant Vaal Guevara’s .22 Derringer, that
information would have raised a reasonable doubt that
Nanon Williams was guilty of capital murder.
Consequently, I would have acquitted."(13)
Another of the jurors has said,
"As a juror, this information, had
I known about it at the trial, would have changed the
trial. It would have changed the effectiveness of the
defense and it would have altered the jury’s
deliberation. As we jurors were held to the high
standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt", this evidence
may have changed our verdict."(14)
In her ruling after the evidentiary hearing
of 18 December 2000, Judge Joan Campbell of the 248th District
Court of Harris County wrote that: "The Court finds that Vaal
Guevara shot [Adonius Collier] in the head with Guevara’s .22
Magnum Davis Derringer." While she held that Nanon Williams had
failed to establish his actual innocence (because of the
testimony suggesting that he had fired the shotgun) she
recommended that he be granted relief because he had been denied
his right to effective assistance of counsel at the trial. She
found that the trial lawyer had been ineffective for failing to
conduct the necessary firearms and ballistics testing. She held
that "the failure to hire an independent firearms examiner
prejudiced the Defendant because a reasonable probability exists
that but for the failure to hire, the outcome of the proceedings
would have been different".
However, on 24 April 2002, the Texas Court of
Criminal Appeals rejected the judge’s recommendation. In an
unpublished two-page order, the Court said that it did not
believe that the judge’s findings were supported by the evidence
presented at the evidentiary hearing. It gave no further
explanation for its decision.
2.4 Unreliable expertise - the HPD
"The result remains the same though the
HPD crime lab has only recently been criticized for its handling
of ballistics evidence in other cases." State reply brief in
Nanon Williams’ appeal(15)
In March 2003, an independent audit of the
Houston Police Department (HPD) Crime Laboratory revealed
serious defects in the lab’s DNA analysis section, including
poorly trained staff relying on outdated scientific techniques.
The report found that the lab was "not designed to minimize
contamination", and that "on one occasion the roof leaked such
that items of evidence came in contact with the water".(16) The
DNA section was shut down, and hundreds of criminal cases opened
for review. In a number of cases, discrepancies between new
tests and the original HPD analysis emerged. One man, Josiah
Sutton, was released from prison after the DNA test used to
convict him was shown to have been wrong, and a retest
exonerated him.(17) Sutton was 16 years old when he was
On 16 October 2003, a Harris County grand
jury completed its investigation in the crime lab, concluding
that it had suffered "inexcusable, wholesale mismanagement" and
"incompetence". The jury said that "there seemed to be a total
lack of concern about profound errors committed by certain
members of the lab staff."(18)
In June, Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford,
himself under attack for failing to act on the crime lab’s
problems, characterized the Texas criminal justice system as "trial
by ambush" and the Harris County prosecutorial ethos as one
which emphasized winning rather than justice. He urged an
inquiry into the entire crime lab, not just its DNA section.(19)
A few days earlier, he had disciplined seven of the lab’s staff.
One of the seven was Robert Baldwin, the criminalist who
testified at Nanon Williams’ trial.(20) The police chief
described the move as "necessary to bring accountability".(21)
At least two other capital convictions
obtained by Harris County prosecutors suggest that the HPD crime
lab’s problems extended beyond its DNA section. Like Nanon
Williams, Johnnie Bernal and Anibal Rousseau are on death row in
Texas, sent there by Harris County prosecutors. Their cases also
involved ballistics evidence processed at the HPD crime lab.
2.4.1 Johnnie Bernal
Like Nanon Williams, Johnnie Bernal was
sentenced to death in 1995 for a shooting murder committed when
he was 17 years old. He was prosecuted by the same prosecutor.
At the trial, the same HPD criminalist, Robert Baldwin,
testified for the state that the .38 bullet taken from the
victim’s body came from a .357 revolver found at Bernal’s home
at the time of his arrest, several weeks after the murder.
Robert Baldwin testified that he had test-fired eleven .38
bullets taken from Johnnie Bernal’s room, and that none of them
matched the bullet from the victim. He then test-fired two
bullets of his own from the .357 revolver. When these did not
match, he applied a solvent to the barrel of the gun, an
inappropriate procedure. He then fired another 12 shots, and
said that he obtained a match. He did not keep a record of which
of the 12 bullets provided the alleged match. The head of Harris
County firearms laboratory has said that common procedure is for
an examiner to test fire a gun two or three times: "If I had to
fire a gun 10 times and did not get conclusive results, that
would be it. Game over".(22)
As in the Nanon Williams case, Johnnie
Bernal’s trial lawyers did not hire a ballistics expert for the
trial. One of them signed a post-conviction affidavit to the
effect that if the state had informed him of the "unconventional
manner in which the gun had been tested", he would have "vigorously
pursued" a request for an expert to "challenge and discredit"
Robert Baldwin’s testimony. Johnnie Bernal, who did not match a
witness description of the gunman, maintains that he did not
shoot the murder victim.(23)
2.4.2 Anibal Rousseau
Anibal Garcia Rousseau also maintains his
innocence. He is a Cuban national who was sentenced to death in
Harris County in 1989 for the murder in 1988 of David Delitta. A
dozen years later, his appeal lawyers discovered that before
Rousseau’s trial, the HPD lab had matched the bullet that killed
Delitta with one that killed Leo Williams, who was shot to death
four months after Rousseau’s arrest. Two weeks after Williams
was shot, Juan Guerrero was arrested, and police found a .38
revolver on him. The gun was sent for testing at the HPD crime
lab. A month after Rousseau was sentenced to death, firearms
examiners at HPD reported that the bullets recovered from Leo
Williams’s body, which matched the fatal bullet in the Delitta
case, were fired from Guerrero’s gun. Leo Guerrero was
imprisoned for the Leo Williams murder. He was paroled in
January 2002 and deported to the Dominican Republic. Anibal
Rousseau remains on death row.
Rousseau’s appeal lawyer has said: "When we
heard about the concerns about the crime lab, this case came to
mind because it demonstrates a failure to communicate
exculpatory evidence. It underscores the fact that the problems
at the crime lab may go beyond testing to communication with the
district attorney’s office". In February 2002, one of the
prosecutors from Annibal Rousseau’s trial called for him to be
granted a new trial, saying that the ballistics reports from the
Guerrero case should have been turned over to Rousseau’s trial
lawyers.(24) She has said that the Rousseau case "bothers me
tremendously.. I’m terribly afraid the wrong guy is in jail."(25)
2.5 Not watertight: The shotgun
"I think we can all agree that of the five
or so billion people on this earth only two people could have
done the killing, only two people could have done the capital
murder, Vaal Guevara and that defendant over there... [I]n this
case it just ain’t Vaal". Prosecutor, closing argument
At Nanon Williams’ trial, the prosecutor
suggested that the sequence of events was as follows: that
Williams shot Emmade Rasul in the face, shot Adonius Collier in
the head, shot again at Rasul as he was running away, and then
shot Collier in the head from close range with the shotgun. As
is now known, this was not true - Collier was shot by a bullet
from Guevara’s .22 Derringer, not from Williams’ .25 caliber
pistol. This is enough, in Amnesty International’s opinion, to
undermine the reliability of the jury’s verdict. The question
remains, however: who shot Collier with the shotgun, and was the
victim alive at the time he was shot?
Nanon Williams has always denied carrying or
firing the shotgun. The evidence against him cannot be described
Again the state’s prime witness was Vaal
Guevara. He claimed that he saw Adonius Collier move and heard
him mumble after he had first been shot. He claimed that Nanon
Williams had said "no more witnesses" and had shot him from
close range with the shotgun.
Elaine Winn testified at the trial that on
the night of the crime, she had seen Nanon Williams hiding the
shotgun under a large football jacket that he was wearing.
However, she admitted that the weather had been too hot to wear
such a heavy item of clothing. She claimed that Nanon Williams
returned to the car after the shooting, carrying the shotgun,
still wearing the jacket. She also testified that she had been
present at Vaal Guevara’s apartment about a week after the
murder and that Nanon Williams had sold the shotgun. A
post-conviction witness, who did not testify at the trial, has
said that "after the shooting, Vaal Guevara sold the shotgun to
a pawn shop called Cash America on South Main in Houston".(26)
Emmade Rasul testified that he had not seen a
shotgun at all on the night in question. He identified Nanon
Williams as the person who had shot him in the face. He said
that he had not seen how Adonius Collier was killed, and that he
had not discerned a shotgun blast, but had "just heard shots" as
he fled. Emmade Rasul not only denied having seen Nanon Williams
with a shotgun, but he had also told police that the 17-year-old
was wearing jogging trousers and a T-shirt, rather than a heavy
jacket. Under questioning by the prosecutor at trial, he said
that he supposed that it was possible that Williams was wearing
"the type of clothes he could have hid a shotgun under".
However, on cross-examination by the defence, he confirmed what
he had told the police.
Dr Tommy Brown, the state’s medical examiner,
had conducted the autopsy on Adonius Collier. However, he missed
the bullet that was in the victim’s head, and found only the
shotgun pellets. An autopsy worker found the bullet and put it
with the pellets. Dr Brown testified that prior to the autopsy
he had X-rayed Collier’s head and had not seen the bullet. The
X-ray was not admitted as evidence during the trial, and after
being ordered to produce it for the purpose of post-conviction
proceedings, the state asserted that it could not be located.
In his closing arguments urging the jury to
convict Nanon Williams, the prosecutor made light of Dr Brown’s
failure to notice the bullet, while at the same time relying on
"I don’t understand this big fuss
about the autopsy. Obviously nobody is perfect and
obviously Dr Brown should have found that there was a
bullet in there... What’s the big deal? He should have,
but what is the big deal he missed a bullet?" After all,
the prosecutor reminded the jury, the evidence was
forwarded to the Houston Police Department "where
somebody like Baldwin [whose testimony on the bullet
has since been shown to have been wrong] looks at it".
Dr Brown testified that, in his opinion,
Collier was alive when he was shot by the shotgun. Dr Brown said
that the shotgun had been fired from close range and that, by a
"reasonable medical probability", it was this shotgun blast that
was the cause of death.(27)
At the post-conviction evidentiary hearing in
2000, Dr Marc Krouse, a forensic pathology expert, testified
that the injury to Adonius Collier could not have been caused
from such a close distance. He said that, given the injuries,
the shotgun would have had to have been between six and 15 feet
from the victim when fired, ruling out that the gunman had been
standing over the victim as Vaal Guevara had suggested at the
In a 1998 affidavit, Dr Krouse disputed Dr
Brown’s claim on the cause of death, stating that "the shotgun
wound is obviously a lethal wound, but it is not clearly or
convincingly the only cause of death of Adonius Collier". Dr
Krouse stated that the .22 bullet could have caused death: "Such
a penetrating injury from a .22 magnum weapon, especially one
that does not exit, has a high probability of fatality, that is,
there is a high probability that the .22 wound caused a lethal
injury." At the evidentiary hearing, Dr Krouse testified that,
in his opinion, the first bullet fired at the victim could have
caused his death. He said that nothing in the evidence ruled out
the possibility that Collier had died from the initial bullet.
It is now established that this first bullet
was fired from Vaal Guevara’s .22 Derringer, and not from a .25
caliber weapon, as the jury was told. In her affidavit, Nanon
Williams’ trial lawyer said: "With the evidence that the first
bullet to enter [Adonius Collier’s] head was fired by Vaal
Guevara, I could have raised a winning defense that Nanon
Williams did not murder Mr Collier. Further, the motive for
firing the shotgun was argued by the state at trial as a
‘cover-up’ measure - to destroy the evidence of the first shot.
The person with the motive to hide the .22 bullet was either
Vaal Guevara, who fired it, or Elaine Winn, Guevara’s girlfriend,
who Nanon has always told me had the shotgun in the car and is
the person he believes fired the shotgun".(28)
In her decision following the evidentiary
hearings, Judge Joan Campbell found that "the great importance
of an independent pathologist is based on knowing that [the
bullet from Collier’s head] is a .22 bullet from Guevara’s gun
and that Guevara was the first person to shoot [Collier].
Certainly with the knowledge that [it] is a .22 bullet, the
testimony of a pathologist such as Krouse is vital to defensive
argument that [Williams] either was not guilty, or punishment
should be different."
Based on the trial testimony of Vaal Guevara
and the post-conviction testimony of Patrick Smith (see below),
Judge Campbell found that Adonius Collier had been alive at the
time he was shot with the shotgun. However, she also found that
if the jury had known that Guevara had first shot Adonius
Collier, the jurors "would have assessed the credibility of
Guevara differently". She also found that the trial jury could
have decided to believe the part of Dr Krouse’s testimony in
which he stated that Adonius Collier was dead before he was shot
with the shotgun. This was the very same defence theory which
the prosecution had been able to ridicule at the trial because
of the absence of expert evidence presented to support it.
2.5.1 Antonio Joseph and Troy Lymuel, new
Other witnesses who had not appeared at the
trial were contacted by the post-conviction lawyers. One was
Antonio Joseph, who lived with Vaal Guevara at the time of the
crime. He told a defence investigator that he had seen a shotgun
in the apartment on several occasions. He said that the shotgun
belonged to Vaal Guevara, and that he knew this because he had
seen Guevara return home one night, before the incident in
Hermann Park, with the shotgun in one hand and a large bag of
money.(29) The state has responded that "Williams could have
used the shotgun regardless of who owned it and the combined and
consistent testimony of Rasul, Winn, Guevara and Smith was that
he did."(30) However, Emmade Rasul testified that he never saw a
shotgun, Guevara and Winn’s testimony might have been assessed
differently by the jurors if they had known that Guevara had
fired the first shot that hit Collier. Patrick Smith’s
post-conviction testimony displays inconsistencies with the
state’s trial witnesses (see below).
Troy Lymuel testified at the post-conviction
hearing in December 2000 that he knew Vaal Guevara and Nanon
Williams personally and that he had been in Guevara’s apartment
on the morning of 14 May 1992, that is, the morning after the
crime. Lymuel stated in an affidavit: "While I was in the
apartment, I saw a woman there who I now know to be Elaine Winn.
At that time I knew her as Vaal Guevara’s girlfriend. I heard
her say: ‘I can’t believe I shot that nigger in the face.’ She
repeated this over and over. I also heard her say, ‘What if I
have to go to jail, what will happen to my baby?’ Vaal Guevara
and other people who were in the apartment were trying to get
her to calm down. Vaal Guevara said that he was going to buy a
ticket and fly to Trinidad. He said: ‘If I go down, I’ll make
sure everyone goes down’."(31)
The state has suggested that Troy Lymuel had
a motive to lie about Winn’s involvement in the crime, namely to
protect Nanon Williams, who is his cousin.(32) Under this
reasoning, the state must also accept that Elaine Winn had a
motive to protect Vaal Guevara, her boyfriend. Nevertheless it
continues to rely upon Elaine Winn’s testimony to corroborate
In her decision in 2001, recommending relief
for Nanon Williams because of his trial lawyer’s failures, Judge
Joan Campbell said that Troy Lymuel’s evidence suggesting that
Elaine Winn had shot Collier with the shotgun was not credible
because there was no evidence elicited at the trial that Elaine
Winn had got out of the car at the scene.
2.5.2 Patrick Smith, new witness for the
At the post-conviction hearings, the state
presented Patrick Smith in an attempt to bolster its weakening
case. Smith had been the person who had driven Nanon Williams,
Vaal Guevara and Elaine Winn to Hermann Park on the night of the
crime. He had not appeared as a witness at the 1995 trial and he
had had no contact with the state authorities on the case until
1998. Until then, he had been known in proceedings only as
"Xavier", and the evidence elicited at trial was that he and
Elaine Winn had stayed in his car during the crime.
Reminiscent of the deal struck with Vaal
Guevara for his trial testimony, the state granted Patrick Smith
immunity from prosecution in relation to the 1992 crime in
return for his testimony against Nanon Williams at the
Smith testified that at the time of the 1992
crime, he and Guevara were good friends, having known each other
for about seven years. He said that he, Smith, never went by the
name of "Xavier", but that Guevara had given this name to the
police in order to protect him.
Patrick Smith’s testimony supported the
state’s trial theory, namely that Collier had been alive after
being hit by the first shot, and that Nanon Williams had been
the person to shoot him in the head with a shotgun from close
range. Smith testified that as he sat in the car, he saw what
occurred. This contradicted what Elaine Winn had said at the
trial. She had said that after the shooting began, "Xavier"
moved the car closer but that they could not see what was
occurring in the wooded area beyond the car park. A recent
state’s reply brief notes Winn’s trial testimony that when the
four youths walked away from the cars, they "walked toward the
wooded area and out of sight of the others."(33) The police
report of the crime scene noted that it was "located within a
dark wooded area", and the police drawing of the crime scene
shows that there were trees between the car park and where the
victim’s body was found.
In contrast to this, at the post-conviction
hearing Patrick Smith said that after the shooting began he
looked over and saw a person on the ground with Nanon Williams
standing by him. Smith said that he heard the man on the ground
shout that he had been shot, contradicting what Vaal Guevara had
claimed at the trial, namely that Adonius Collier had mumbled
after being first shot. Smith said that as he watched Guevara
chase the other man, he heard a shotgun blast, and turned back
to see Nanon Williams standing over a body with a shotgun in his
hand. When Guevara and Williams returned to the vehicle, Smith
testified that Nanon Williams had said that he had put the
shotgun in the victim’s mouth and pulled the trigger. Yet at the
trial, Elaine Winn had said that neither Vaal Guevara nor Nanon
Williams had said anything about what had happened, and that she
did not know whether anyone had been shot. Patrick Smith’s
evidence also contradicts the trial testimony of the state’s
medical examiner who stated that the shotgun had been fired from
a distance of two to four feet from Collier’s head. At the
evidentiary hearing, Dr Krouse said that there was "absolutely
no way" that the shotgun was in contact with the victim’s head
when fired, and that it was most likely fired from a distance of
six to 15 feet away.
Nevertheless, in her findings, Judge Joan
Campbell found that Patrick Smith was a credible witness. She
found that, while Vaal Guevara had fired the first bullet that
struck Adonius Collier, Nanon Williams had not proved that he
had not fired the shotgun.
3. The punishment
"To sentence someone to die for a crime
committed as a child, one has to believe that - in the long
natural life the defendant would otherwise have before him -
meaningful change and some measure of redemption are either
impossible or unimportant. There are good reasons why the rest
of the world has rejected executions of children".
Regardless of Nanon Williams’ guilt or
innocence in this crime - he himself admits that he was present
at the drug deal - he was ineligible for the death penalty. The
fact that he was under 18 at the time of the crime meant that
the prosecution pursued and obtained an internationally illegal
punishment against him. There are additional concerns over the
penalty, however. Firstly, did the murder genuinely qualify as a
capital crime under Texas law? Secondly would the jurors have
voted for life rather than death if they had been presented with
a true picture of the defendant’s violent upbringing and its
psychological impact on him to weigh in mitigation against the
state’s case for execution?
3.1 A tenuous aggravator
In Texas there are eight statutory "aggravators"
- factors which make murder committed in the state punishable by
the death penalty. One of these aggravating factors is murder
during the course of an actual or attempted robbery.(35) This is
what the prosecution alleged in Nanon Williams’ case. If robbery
could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, there could be no
punishment of death.
Elaine Winn, who was never charged with any
crime, and her boyfriend Vaal Guevara, whose capital murder
charge was dropped in exchange for his testimony, were the
state’s key witnesses to establish the robbery theory. Vaal
Guevara testified that after the shooting, Nanon Williams rifled
through Adonius Collier’s pockets from which he took some drugs
and a pager which he placed in a baseball cap.
Elaine Winn said after the shooting that
Nanon Williams had returned to the car with a baseball cap and a
pager, and a bag with a couple of rocks of cocaine in it. She
added that Nanon Williams had said, "I can’t believe this is all
we got". Elaine Winn further testified that Nanon Williams had
thrown the pager out of the car window.
Several factors raise questions about the
reliability of this testimony heard by the jury:
- Police found a bag of cocaine right
by the dead body. Nanon Williams had allegedly rifled
through Collier’s pockets. If Williams had been so
intent on robbery, why had he not picked up this
unhidden bag of drugs?
- A Houston Police Department report
of 21 May 1992 notes that Adonius Collier’s stepfather
had called to say that he had found his son’s pager at
home. This information was not made available to the
- If the jurors had known, as is now
established, that the bullet that first hit Adonius
Collier in the head had been fired from Vaal Guevara’s
gun, would they have believed his and his girlfriend’s
evidence of the alleged robbery?
At Nanon William’s trial, the jury had been
faced with a stark option as they retired for deliberation at
the guilt stage. They could vote to convict Nanon Williams of
capital murder, or they could vote to acquit. They had no other
option, as the prosecutor repeated during his closing arguments
at the guilt stage: "Is the defendant guilty of capital murder...
yes or no? If he’s guilty, we go on. If not, he walks... Finding
him guilty of ordinary murder... is not an option".
The US Supreme Court has held that, as a
matter of due process, "the jury [in a capital case] must be
permitted to consider a verdict of guilt of a non-capital
offense in every case in which the evidence would have supported
such a verdict."(36) Given that the evidence of robbery was weak,
Nanon Williams’ lawyer had asked the trial judge to allow the
jury to consider the offence of non-capital murder as an
additional option. The judge refused. In her 1998 affidavit,
Nanon Williams’ lawyer recalled that: "When I talked to the
jurors after the trial, at least five of them told me that they
would have considered murder." She recalled that at least two of
the jurors had come out of the jury room in tears.
The post-conviction judge, Judge Joan
Campbell, found that if the jurors had known that Adonius
Collier had first been shot by Vaal Guevara, it might have
caused them to find Nanon Williams guilty of a crime of less
than capital murder.
3.2 Future dangerousness: inciting
"He’s a predator... He’s evil. He’s just
flat-out evil. What else can I say?" Prosecutor, closing
In Texas a death sentence cannot be handed
down unless the jury unanimously decides that, if allowed to
live, the defendant will likely commit future acts of criminal
violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society -
the so-called "future dangerousness" question.
At the sentencing phase of Nanon Williams’s
trial, the prosecution presented evidence of his other run-ins
with the law, including possession of firearms, burglary and
robbery. It presented testimony from an elderly Californian man
who had been the victim of an armed burglary committed by three
black males in March 1992, an offence to which Nanon Williams
had pleaded guilty.(37) The state also presented evidence that
the defendant had displayed aggression during his time in jail
pending trial, and had beaten another inmate at the Harris
Two Texas professors have written that "the
successful application of the label "dangerous" serves to set
the defendant aside... Jurors caught up in a situation akin to a
moral panic have little choice but to protect society by
incapacitating these "dangerous sociopaths". Ambivalence is
easily overcome, thus justifying the state’s ultimate form of
social control - the death penalty".(38)
Urging the jury to vote for a death sentence
for Nanon Williams, the prosecutor encouraged the jurors to view
the defendant as "evil" and irredeemable. Amnesty International
believes that his comments threatened to bring his profession
into disrepute and undermined international standards applying
to prosecutors.(39) His closing arguments for execution included
the following comments:
"It is almost incredible how evil,
how vicious, how cunning, what utter disregard the
defendant has for life, for property. It’s almost mind-boggling".
"...his intelligence and cunning are
the things that make him so dangerous. Imagine running
into a dark alley somewhere. Imagine him in your house.
Imagine coming home and finding him in your house... It
is absolutely frightening to think what this defendant
is capable of. Imagine being locked in a cell with him."
"He’s a predator... He’s evil. He’s
just flat-out evil. What else can I say? If we are all
in agreement that in certain instances the death penalty
is appropriate, if not this case, if not this defendant,
"...if this defendant isn’t a future
danger, nobody is a future danger... It almost insults
your intelligence to try to argue with you that he is
not a future danger".
"I am asking you for one thing,
folks. I am asking you for justice... Did we give the
defendant a fair trial? We gave him all of his rights.
But don’t we, as a society, have any rights? Don’t we
have the right to be safe and secure? Don’t other
inmates have the right to be safe and secure in prison?"
The international consensus against putting
child offenders to death for their crimes reflects the
widespread recognition of an attribute associated with young
people - namely their capacity for growth and change. The life
of a child offender, it is agreed, should never be written off,
no matter what he or she has done. Rather, the guiding principle
for officialdom must be to maximize the child offender’s
potential for eventual successful reintegration into society.
Execution is the ultimate denial of this principle.
Nevertheless, Nanon Williams’ prosecutor told
the jury that handing down a life prison sentence in such a case
would be "the absolute worst decision that any responsible
person could ever make." Urging the jurors to impose a death
sentence on Nanon Williams, the prosecutor suggested that not to
vote for death "is just kind of see no evil, hear no evil, ‘I
know what he’s going to be like, but somehow, some way maybe he
will change’ when you know he won’t." He suggested that the
defendant’s "prospects of rehabilitation... are nil. They are
none. He has no desire to do anything to improve himself."
Nanon Williams is now 29 years old. He has
sought to improve himself and to channel his emotions into
socially acceptable ways. He has taken to writing, and has
published poetry as well as a book about life on death row. He
has written: "I learned that the ability to use language can
create something very beautiful, that written words can take
everything to a new realm... Words, unlike anything else, can
tear away the veil of reality and create an illusive state that
forces us to explore ourselves, our minds and hearts, and the
world around us. The more information we receive from words, the
more clearly we see the ways of the world that we don’t
understand, and that gives us a vision more intense than we care
to possess. In order to share our lives here on Death Row and to
become a better writer, I began to read, read, read.... The more
I read, the more knowledge I gained."(40)
At the post-conviction evidentiary hearings
in 1998 and 2000, a mental health expert, Dr Gary Aitcheson (see
below) testified that Nanon Williams was a remarkably different
person then than he had been at 17, and that he was learning "that
confrontation with the system is not the best way, but spreads
his message through his writing and even reaches people outside
the prison with a message to help others".(41) Nanon Williams
himself writes: "My words often reflect an angry young man.
Indeed, as an innocent young man imprisoned for a crime I did
not commit, I am often angry. My anger is sometimes the
motivating factor in what I do. I have attempted not to
misdirect my anger but rather to direct it toward something
The prosecutor violated international law by
pursuing the death sentence against Nanon Williams. His
arguments that the defendant should be viewed as beyond
rehabilitation were an affront to the fundamental principles
behind that legal prohibition.
Anyone asked to list characteristics they
associate with childhood would likely include at least one of
the following: immaturity, impulsiveness, lack of self-control,
poor judgment, an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, a
susceptibility to peer pressure, and a vulnerability to the
domination or example of elders. Common agreement about such
attributes lies behind the global ban on the use of the death
penalty for the crimes of children. For such traits render the
would-be goals of deterrence or retribution unachievable in such
cases, and lead to the inescapable conclusion that executing
child offenders is a shameful exercise in state-sanctioned
Indeed, the prosecutor in this case resorted
to a barely concealed appeal to vengeance in his call upon the
jury to vote for Nanon Williams to be put to death:
"What about Donnie [Adonius]
Collier’s rights? The defendant insists on his. What
about Donnie Collier’s rights? He never got the same
chance... Let’s exercise our rights..."
"Do you want to put a roof over his
head? Do you want to feed him three times a day? Do you
want to let him watch TV? He gets to watch the sun come
up, come down. His mother, sister and friends can come
visit him. Is that appropriate punishment...?"
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, for
one, has condemned such arguments by prosecutors. That court has
agreed that for the prosecution to argue that it is unfair for
the defendant to live because the victim is dead creates a "super-aggravator
applicable in every death case. No amount of mitigating evidence
can counter this argument, and if the jury agrees, they may not
even consider mitigating evidence".(43)
With a prosecutor presenting such
inflammatory arguments, it was even more important that Nanon
Williams’ jurors were presented with a thorough account of the
defendant’s life and its impact on him for the purposes of
mitigation. However, they were not provided with a full picture
on which to base their life-or-death decision.
3.3 Mitigation: jury denied expert
"I have learned that, that is what hope
is, to bloom under circumstances that are not ideal. Inside each
of us, that flower only needs a little water and it will give
the breath to our soul that prepares us for whatever may come".
In Texas, once the jurors have answered ‘yes’
to the future dangerousness question, they are then asked
whether, after taking into consideration all of the evidence
about the crime and the defendant, there are sufficient
mitigating circumstances to warrant a sentence of life
imprisonment rather than death.
Nanon Williams’s mother and older sister
testified as mitigation witnesses. The jury learned that the
defendant’s parents were both drug dealers, that both had served
time in prison during their son’s childhood, and that the father
was killed by another drug dealer over a dispute over territory.
The mother had then married another man who was also a drug
dealer, and the family moved to California. The jury learned
that Nanon Williams had witnessed the shooting of his uncle when
he was seven or eight years old, and that a few years later he
learned that his father had been shot to death. When he was 11,
a federal agent had put a gun to the young boy’s head when the
FBI had raided his mother’s house on a drug raid. Both the
mother and sister testified that he had been angry, depressed
and had talked about suicide. The mother testified that her son
was intelligent and athletically gifted. The third mitigation
witness was a probation officer, who knew Nanon Williams from
when he was held at a juvenile facility in California at the age
of 16. He testified about Williams’s good character, his
intelligence, and his good disciplinary record at the facility.
The US Supreme Court wrote in a case
involving a 16-year-old offender, but which applies equally to
17-year-olds: Evidence of a difficult family history and of
emotional disturbance is typically introduced by defendants in
mitigation. In some cases, such evidence properly may be given
little weight. But when the defendant was 16 years old at the
time of the offense there can be no doubt that evidence of a
turbulent family history, of beatings by a harsh father, and of
severe emotional disturbance is particularly relevant....[Y]outh
is more than a chronological fact. It is a time and condition of
life when a person may be most susceptible to influence and to
psychological damage. Even the normal 16-year-old customarily
lacks the maturity of an adult... All of this does not suggest
an absence of responsibility for the crime of murder,
deliberately committed in this case. Rather, it is to say that
just as the chronological age of a minor is itself a relevant
mitigating factor of great weight, so must the background and
mental and emotional development of a youthful defendant be duly
considered in sentencing.(45)
Nevertheless, Nanon Williams’ prosecutor took
to ridiculing the evidence presented by the defence. He referred
to the mitigating evidence as "malarkey". He demeaned the
evidence by suggesting that it was routine in capital cases: "There’s
always mitigating evidence. Think about it. ‘I was sexually
abused as a child, I was tortured, I was physically abused as a
child, I am mentally ill, I have a low IQ, I am learning
disabled, I never even knew my parents, I never even knew who my
parents were, I was always in foster homes.’ There’s always
mitigating evidence." He suggested that the mitigating evidence
was an excuse for murder: "He could kill you or me or the judge
or the President or wipe out our families, he can do anything he
wants, he’s got this ‘I can commit any capital murder from now
on because seven years earlier there was some bad stuff that
happened in my family’".
The use of the death penalty against child
offenders rejects any notion that wider adult society - family,
community or state - should accept even minimal responsibility
in the crime of a child. The profile of the typical condemned
teenager is not of a youngster from a stable, supportive
background, but rather of a mentally impaired or emotionally
disturbed adolescent emerging from a childhood of abuse,
deprivation and poverty. A glimpse at the backgrounds of the
child offenders executed in the USA since 1990 suggests that
society had failed them well before it decided to kill them.(46)
Nevertheless, the prosecutor suggested that
the evidence presented by Nanon Williams’ defence lawyer
amounted to little of worth - "think about the lack of true
mitigating circumstances and you know what your verdict must be"
- but that "even if this somehow is mitigating, haven’t we as a
society bent over backwards for him?... What else can we do as
Although many people on death row were
subjected to serious abuse and deprivation when they were
children, the younger the offender, the closer in time they are
to such abuse. The fact that their emotional trauma is more raw
may make them less likely to divulge such information to their
trial lawyer, or more likely to refuse to have such information
divulged at trial.(47) According to his trial lawyer, Nanon
Williams refused to meet with a psychiatrist "until a couple of
days before trial and I felt that by then it was too late to
raise a mental health issue. I felt that to do so would look
bogus, and I decided not to do it".(48) A possible further sign
of his unwillingness to consider his past traumas was that when
his mother testified at the sentencing phase, Nanon Williams
refused to attend.
Today Nanon Williams has learned to express
himself through writing. For example, in his recent book he
tells of the grief of learning on death row that his grandfather
("Papa") has died and of the pain of knowing that he would not
be able to attend the funeral. It causes him to recall the death
of his own father: "I thought of my own father and remembered
how he was shot over and over again on a street in Los Angeles,
over drug territory. I remembered being a boy of eleven and
going to the funeral, watching hundreds of people, it seemed,
lay flowers on his casket and kiss him. My father just laid
there, very pale, his eyes closed, stitches closing his wounds.
There was no life in him and I stood above him, staring at first,
and then I laid my head on his chest crying and begging him to
wake up". He continues: "Even prison could never erase the
memories of my father. Sometimes, even now, more than fourteen
years later, I wake up with tears streaming down my face,
missing my father. Now Papa was gone... Now there would be no
other chances to make Papa proud. I wouldn’t be allowed to
attend my grandfather’s funeral, and this caused me more pain
than anyone could imagine".(49)
The mitigating evidence presented in Nanon
Williams’ sentencing phase glossed over the reality of his
childhood. Most importantly, perhaps, the jurors were not
presented with any expert evidence to help them put his criminal
activities into a psychological context.
For the purpose of the post-conviction
proceedings, Dr Gary Aitcheson, a forensic and clinical
psychologist, reviewed Nanon Williams’s records and conducted a
mental health examination. He concluded that Williams suffered
from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the
violence to which he was exposed or subjected during his
In an affidavit, Dr Aitcheson revealed, among
other things, that:
- Nanon and his father were shot at on
several occasions as they drove a car.
- When he was only seven years
old, Nanon’s uncle was shot to death right in his
presence in the doorway to their house, as another man
physically fought with his mother. Nanon tried to get to
his uncle, and was covered in blood from his uncle’s
wounds as he tried to revive his dead uncle.
- Nanon went into a shocked state
when told of the shooting murder of his father.
- When he was about 11 years old,
the FBI conducted a nighttime raid on the home of his
parents. The raid involved about 30 armed SWAT team
officers. The armed men held guns to his head. He
believed that he was going to be shot and killed; he
then witnessed his parents being handcuffed and taken
away at gunpoint.
- Nanon was left alone for long
periods of time in the home with adult strangers he did
not know who were highly intoxicated on illicit drugs.
He experienced prolonged periods of the absence of an
adult in the home, sometimes for weeks at a time. He was
constantly shuffled through a variety of inconsistent,
incompetent parent figures and homes while his own
parents were incarcerated.
- Nanon suffered severe verbal and
physical abuse as one of only two African American
children first entering a previously all-white school.
- Nanon’s cousin’s mother was killed and
- At age five, Nanon was stabbed
in the leg by children who attempted to take his
tricycle away from him. This is Nanon’s earliest memory.
- Nanon was never able to partake
of the usual activities of childhood, friendship and
school because his parental figures were engaging in
illegal activities, or were incarcerated.
Dr Aitcheson suggested that "without a
psychiatrist to explain the evidence the jury received from his
family, telling the jury about the violence he was exposed to as
a youngster could only have done more harm than good, and may
have led the jury to decide he was likely to be dangerous in the
future, which is simply not the case with PTSD". In Dr
Aitcheson’s opinion, expert testimony at the sentencing phase
could have helped the jury to understand that the defendant was
not an "immutable psychopath, but rather a young man struggling
without guidance to deal with a horrific childhood".(50) From
the time he spent with him, Dr Aitcheson was "certain that he is
not a cold, heartless killer, but instead an intelligent,
talented, teachable, emotional human being".
3.4 An internationally illegal penalty
"He’s not a boy, he’s a man. He will be 21
in a couple of weeks". Prosecutor, closing arguments for
The jurors were encouraged by the prosecutor
to think in terms of the defendant’s age at the time of the
trial rather than at the time of the crime three years earlier.
They were not informed that what they were being asked to do by
the state was to involve themselves in an internationally
illegal practice - the imposition of the death penalty on
someone who was under 18 years old at the time of the crime.
Nanon Williams was tried in 1995. Between
1990 and 1995, there were 13 recorded executions of child
offenders worldwide. Six (46 per cent) were carried out in the
USA. Since 1995, there have been 21 such executions documented
globally. The USA accounts for 13 (62 per cent) of these
executions. Of the five such executions recorded worldwide in
the past two years, four (80 per cent) took place in the United
States. The USA is not only out of step on a fundamental
principle of human rights law, it is becoming more so.
There are 192 states parties to the UN
Convention on the Rights of the Child which prohibits the use of
the death penalty against child offenders.(52) The USA has not
ratified the treaty, although it has signed it thereby binding
itself not to undermine its provisions pending a decision on
whether to ratify it.(53) The USA has ratified the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), but lodged a
reservation purporting to exempt itself from the treaty’s ban on
the execution of child offenders. The US reservation has been
widely condemned, including by the Human Rights Committee, the
expert body established by the ICCPR to oversee its
In October 2002, the Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights held that "a norm of international
customary law has emerged prohibiting the execution of offenders
under the age of 18 years at the time of their crime" and that
this rule has been recognized as being of a sufficiently
indelible nature to now constitute a norm of jus cogens
(a peremptory norm of general international law). The Commission
found that "the acceptance of this norm crosses political and
ideological boundaries and efforts to detract from this standard
have been vigorously condemned by members of the international
community as impermissible under contemporary human rights
standards... As a jus cogens norm, this proscription
binds the community of States, including the United States. The
norm cannot be validly derogated from, whether by treaty or by
the objection of a state, persistent or otherwise."(54)
4. That "all-important good impression"
"[O]ffences committed by juveniles under
the age of 18 do not merit the death penalty. The practice of
executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is
inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized
society. We should put an end to this shameful practice."
Four US Supreme Court Justices, October 2002
The four US Supreme Court Justices who
dissented in 2002 against the Court’s refusal to revisit its
1989 decision, Stanford v Kentucky, allowing the
execution of child offenders, did not include Justice Sandra Day
O’Connor among them.
A year later, Justice O’Connor said that "no
institution of government can afford any longer to ignore the
rest of the world." She recalled that in the Court’s decision in
June 2002 to outlaw the execution of people with mental
retardation, the majority noted that "within the world
community, the imposition of the death penalty for crimes
committed by mentally retarded offenders is overwhelmingly
disapproved". Justice O’Connor continued: "I suspect that with
time, we will rely increasingly on international and foreign law
in resolving what now appear to be domestic issues, as we both
appreciate more fully the ways in which domestic issues have
international dimension, and recognize the rich resources
available to us in foreign courts. Doing so may not only enrich
our own country’s decisions; it will create that all-important
good impression. When US courts are seen to be cognizant of
other judicial systems, our ability to act as a rule-of-law
model for other nations will be enhanced". (55)
On the question of the death penalty against
people with mental retardation, nine senior former US diplomats
had filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief
with the US Supreme Court which argued that such use of the
death penalty had "become manifestly inconsistent with evolving
international standards of decency". Continuing to execute such
defendants, the brief asserted, "will strain diplomatic
relations with close American allies, provide ammunition to
countries with demonstrably worse human rights records, increase
US diplomatic isolation, and impair the United States’ foreign
policy interests".(56) If this was true of the execution of
people with mental retardation, it can be no less true in
relation to the execution of child offenders, an illegal
practice now virtually unknown outside of the United States and
condemned in all corners of the globe.
Kevin Stanford was the Kentucky death row
prisoner at the centre of the Stanford v Kentucky
decision in 1989.(57) In December 2003, the outgoing governor of
Kentucky commuted Kevin Stanford’s death sentence on the grounds
that it was an "injustice". Despite the seriousness of the crime
for which Kevin Stanford was sent to death row, Governor Paul
Patton had come to the conclusion that the punishment was wrong
because Kevin Stanford was under 18 at the time of his offence.
It is just as wrong in the case of Nanon
Williams and the dozens of other child offenders on death row in
the USA. The executive clemency authorities should ensure no
more executions of child offenders take place. Legislators in
the offending states, including and especially Texas, should
change their laws to exempt from the death penalty those who
were under 18 at the time of the crime. The US Supreme Court
should also do the right thing and prohibit the execution of
child offenders, as it did in June 2002 for offenders with
In view of the false evidence that was
presented to Nanon Williams’ jury, and the inadequacy of his
defence representation, Amnesty International believes that
Nanon Williams should be granted a new trial. This time, in line
with international law and standards of decency, the death
penalty should not be an option.
(1) See US State Department website.
(2) Report Nº 62/02, Merits, Case 12.285
Michael Domingues, United States, 22 October 2002.
(3) Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and
(4) At the time of writing, Edward Capetillo,
Efrain Perez, and Raul Villarreal were scheduled to be executed
in Texas on 30 March, 23 June, and 24 June respectively. All
were convicted of crimes committed when they were 17 years old.
(5) In a recent reply brief, the state
mistakenly writes that Rasul identified Guevara as the person
who shot him in the face. In fact, Rasul was unable to identify
Guevara from a police line-up. At the trial, Guevara testified
that when he, Williams, Rasul and Collier had walked into the
woods to conduct the drug transaction, they had split into pairs.
Guevara said he had gone with Rasul, and Williams had gone with
Collier. Under such circumstances, it would be expected that
Rasul would have remembered Guevara rather than Williams.
(6) Still Surviving. Nanon McKewn Williams.
Breakout Publishing, May 2003, page 149.
(7) Affidavit of Loretta Muldrow, 16 April
1998. The defence lawyer also stated that "during punishment
deliberations, the victim’s mother approached me and told me
that she did not agree with the prosecution of Nanon on a charge
of capital murder where the state was seeking the death penalty
while the others went unpunished. Her position was that if the
other individuals were not also prosecuted, he should not have
been singled out for the death penalty. She was unaware this had
happened until she arrived on the first day of the trial and she
was very upset with the prosecutor."
(8) Letter from Vic Wisner, Assistant
District Attorney, Harris County, Texas to Pardons and Parole
Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 4 August
1999. Despite the prosecutor’s plea that Vaal Guevara "remain
incarcerated for as long as possible", he was released on parole.
In 2003, his parole ended.
(9) The bullet that hit Emmade Rasul’s face
was never found.
(10) Williams v Cockrell, Petition for a writ
of habeas corpus, in the US District Court for the Southern
District of Texas, Houston Division. May 2003.
(11) Letter from Robert D Baldwin,
Criminalist III, Houston Police Department, 15 January 1998.
(12) In September 1998, Judge W.R. Voigt
conducted an evidentiary hearing, but never entered his findings
before his term as judge expired in 1998. In December 2000,
Judge Joan Campbell held an evidentiary hearing on the same
(13) Affidavit of Collete Cox, 14 April 1998.
(14) Affidavit of Dianna Kay Lindsey, 6 April
(15) Williams v Dretke, Respondent Dretke’s
answer and motion for summary judgment with brief in support. In
the United States District Court for the Southern District of
Texas, Houston Division, November 2003.
(16) Auditors find problems with HPD’s crime
lab. Houston Chronicle, 15 March 2003.
(17) Crime lab scandal leaves prosecutor
feeling betrayed. Houston Chronicle, 16 March 2003. The
Chronicle wrote: "With the retest showing that Sutton could not
have been the rapist, Harris County prosecutors, known across
the country as tough, once again faced the perception that they
go for quick convictions and long prison sentences first, and
ask questions about justice and evidence later".
(18) Lab probe finishes with no indictments.
Houston Chronicle, 17 October 2003.
(19) Chief: Texas justice unfair. Houston
Chronicle, 24 June 2003.
(20) Discipline in HPD Crime Lab
Investigation. HPD News Release, 12 June 2003.
(21) HPD crime lab officials resign to avoid
firing. Houston Chronicle, 12 June 2003.
(22) Cases cast doubt on ballistics work at
HPD lab. Houston Chronicle, 23 March 2003.
(23) Williams v Cockrell, Petition for a writ
of habeas corpus, in the US District Court for the Southern
District of Texas, Houston Division. May 2003.
(24) The information on the Anibal Rousseau
case is drawn mainly from: Fingers pointed at HPD crime lab in
death row case. Houston Chronicle, 24 April 2003.
(25) Reasonable doubt. Death row inmate's
trial may have had fatal flaw. Houston Chronicle, 21 April 2002.
(26) Affidavit of Troy Lymuel, 16 April 1998.
(27) In his 1998 affidavit, Dr Marc Krouse
stated: "Dr Tommy Brown’s use of the terminology "reasonable
medical probability" that the shotgun blast was the cause of
death is the standard applied to civil cases and is commonly
used where the expert cannot state with certainty the conclusion
(28) Affidavit of Loretta Muldrow, 16 April
(29) Declaration of Ben Gold. 2 May 2003.
(30) Williams v Dretke, Respondent Dretke’s
answer and motion for summary judgment with brief in support. In
the United States District Court for the Southern District of
Texas, Houston Division, November 2003.
(31) Affidavit of Troy Lymuel, 16 April 1998.
(32) Williams v Dretke, Respondent Dretke’s
answer and motion for summary judgment with brief in support. In
the United States District Court for the Southern District of
Texas, Houston Division, November 2003.
(33) Williams v Dretke, Respondent Dretke’s
answer and motion for summary judgment with brief in support. In
the United States District Court for the Southern District of
Texas, Houston Division, November 2003.
(34) Legal but wrong. Washington Post
editorial, 19 September 2003.
(35) Texas Penal Code §19.3. (a)(2). "The
person intentionally commits the murder in the course of
committing or attempting to commit kidnapping, burglary, robbery,
aggravated sexual assault, arson, or obstruction or retaliation".
(36) Hopper v Evans, 456 U.S. 605 (1982).
(37) Nanon Williams had made the plea, while
still a juvenile, without a lawyer or parent present.
(38) Jon Sorensen and James Marquart, Future
dangerousness and incapacitation. In, America's experiment with
capital punishment, James Acker et al (ed). Carolina Academic
(39) "Prosecutors shall, in accordance with
the law, perform their duties fairly, consistently and
expeditiously, and respect and protect human dignity and uphold
human rights, thus contributing to ensuring due process and the
smooth functioning of the criminal justice system". Guidelines
on the Role of Prosecutors, Eighth United Nations Congress on
the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana,
27 August to 7 September 1990, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.144/28/Rev.1 at
(40) Still Surviving, page 71.
(41) Williams v Cockerell, Petition for a
Writ of Habeas Corpus, In the United States District Court for
the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, May 2003.
(42) Still Surviving, p.221
(43) Le v State, 1997 OK CR 55
(44) Still Surviving, p 222.
(45) Eddings v Oklahoma (1982).
(46) In recent years, US society has agonized
over school shootings by children. Should it not also reflect
upon the fact that 12 of the 13 child offenders executed in the
USA since 1998 were put to death for crimes involving guns? It
is an element of these crimes that is difficult to ignore. The
Texas Attorney General’s office implicitly acknowledges this in
a recent reply brief, noting that it is not surprising that not
many 17-year-olds commit capital murder because "17-year-olds
are less likely to have unhampered access to the
instrumentalities and localities so commonly associated with
capital murder (e.g. guns, cars and private residences) than
independent adults". This statement also acknowledges that 17-year-olds
are not "independent adults".
(47) For example, in October 2000 James
Edward Davolt was sentenced to death in Arizona for a double
murder committed in November 1998 when he was 16 years old. A
few days before the sentencing hearing James Davolt dismissed
his lawyers and, despite his young age and the seriousness of
his situation, was allowed to represent himself. He presented no
mitigating evidence. The lawyers had been investigating and
preparing such evidence when the teenager fired them. They have
told Amnesty International that there was evidence of mitigating
evidence in the form of a very dysfunctional family life, and of
possible physical and other abuse against James Davolt. In its
decision (Atkins v Virginia, 2002) finding the execution of
people with mental retardation unconstitutional, the US Supreme
Court pointed out that such defendants "may be less able to give
meaningful assistance to their counsel and are typically poor
witnesses", making them additionally vulnerable to "wrongful
execution". So too for many young defendants. Amnesty
International has argued that if the Supreme Court was to apply
its Atkins reasoning to the question of the constitutionality of
executing child offenders, if consistent it would outlaw the
latter practice too.
(48) Affidavit of Loretta Muldrow, 16 April
(49) Still Surviving, pages 187-188.
(50) Affidavit, Gary Aitcheson, 17 April
(51) The international community of states
has adopted four human rights treaties of worldwide or regional
scope which explicitly exclude child offenders from the death
penalty. Several international humanitarian law treaties also
prohibit the use of the death penalty against child offenders.
(52) At the time of Nanon Williams’ trial in
1995, there were 175 states parties to the Convention.
(53) Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on
the Law of Treaties.
(54) Op. cit.
(55) Remarks at Southern Center for
International Studies, Atlanta, Georgia, 28 October 2003.
(56) Ernest Paul McCarver v State of North
Carolina. Brief of Amici Curiae. Diplomats Morton Abramowitz,
Stephen W. Bosworth, Stuart E. Eizenstat, John C. Kornblum,
Phyllis E. Oakley, Thomas R. Pickering, Felix G. Rohatyn, J.
Stapleton Roy, and Frank G Wisner in support of Petitioner.
(57) The decision amalgamated two cases. The
other was Wilkins v Missouri. While Kevin Stanford was 17 at the
time of the crime, Heath Wilkins was 16. Wilkins is now serving
a life sentence after his death sentence was overturned by a
federal judge. In 2003 the Missouri Supreme Court outlawed the
use of the death penalty against under-18-year-olds, although
the state has appealed this decision.