Tenth Circuit finds Oklahoma death row inmate entitled to habeas relief on Beck claim
Posted on: 9/4/2013 08:44:34 AM by Peoples

In Williams v. Trammell, ___ Fed.Appx. ___, 2013 WL 4504774 (10th Cir. Aug. 26, 2013), the Tenth Circuit (Hartz, Murphy, Holmes) decided that the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals applied a rule contrary to that set forth in Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625 (1980) when it determined that Sterling Williams had not been entitled to his requested instruction on second-degree depraved-mind murder. It then found that denial of the instruction violated Williams’s constitutional rights.

The flaw in the state court’s analysis was its focus on the sufficiency of the evidence to support the capital offense instead of the sufficiency of the evidence to support the lesser-included offense. Although the state court did rule that the evidence did not support a second-degree murder conviction, it offered no explanation why this was so except that the evidence supported the first-degree conviction. 

Because the state court’s decision was not entitled to deference, the claim was reviewed de novo. The panel concluded the evidence supported a conviction on the lesser-included offense and so denial of the requested instruction required a grant of habeas relief as to the first-degree murder conviction. The case involved "a confrontation with an unarmed victim, culminating in a single stab wound to the chest." In addition, Williams became emotional and expressed regret shortly after the killing. An inference that the killing was unintentional was further supported by evidence that Williams had brought duct tape and gloves, along with the knife, to the victim’s home. The tape and gloves were never used, suggesting that whatever Williams had actually planned had not occurred. Although Williams attacked the victim’s roommate after the killing, there was evidence that he might have allowed her to escape, again suggesting the absence of an intent to kill. 

The panel concluded by denying a certificate of appealability on Williams’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel as it related to the assault on the victim’s roommate.