On the evening of January 4, 1998, in Shreveport, Louisiana, a group of neighborhood friends came up with an idea—they would order a pizza. The deliveryman, 23-year-old Jarvis Griffin, arrived at the house where a group of friends, including 16-year-old Corey Williams and 20-year-old Chris Moore (nicknamed “Rapist”), were hanging out.
At the time, according to court filings from Williams’s attorneys, Williams was known as someone who would take the fall for anyone, “what one might refer to as a ‘chump,’” a family member said. He reportedly had an IQ of 68, had been institutionalized multiple times for intellectual disability, and suffered from a severe case of lead poisoning.
After delivering the pizza and collecting his money, Griffin returned to his car. Soon afterward, he was slumped over the wheel, dead from gunshots. Witnesses, including Williams himself, initially told investigators that several men were involved in shooting and robbing Griffin, including then-16-year old Gabriel Logan, his older brother Nathan Logan, and Moore (“Rapist”). During interrogations, however, the older boys, the Logan brothers and Rapist, directed police to the gun and claimed that Williams had shot Griffin, after which they had all divvied up the money.
But the physical evidence didn’t match up. The only fingerprints on the gun were Nathan Logan’s—who was never charged. The only blood was on Gabriel Logan’s shirt. The gun was Rapist’s. And the money? Williams didn’t have any of it. The other men had split the proceeds.
Instead, Williams was found that evening by law enforcement trembling and urine-soaked at his grandmother’s house, huddled under a sheet; he had peed in his pants out of fear of the older boys. Still, he was dragged to the police station that night. In his first interview with police, Williams said that he had seen Gabriel Logan shoot the victim; he also told police that Gabriel had called him and threatened to kill him if he didn’t take the fall for the crime. But, at 8:30 the next morning, after 12 hours of continuous interrogation and no sleep, he confessed to shooting the driver. He then asked if he could go home and lie down.
Not long after, Williams insisted he was innocent and his confession, false. But in October of 2000, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sent to death row. (Rapist was the star prosecution witness who testified against Williams.) This sentence was later commuted to life without parole after a judge determined that Williams is intellectually disabled and therefore not eligible for the death penalty. Nonetheless, up until May 21, he was still serving time in Angola Prison.
Then, on May 22, in a surprise settlement agreement, the Caddo Parish district attorney’s office agreed to release Williams immediately in exchange for a plea of manslaughter. This was a tremendous turnaround, a victory for which Williams had fought for two decades, first largely on his own, but increasingly with a growing base of support. In recent years, as the movement to hold corrupt prosecutors accountable has grown, Williams’s case has become a symbol of the most flagrant prosecutorial abuse—as well as of all that is broken in Louisiana’s criminal-justice system. With his release, justice finally seemed to prevail.
Yet Williams’s freedom also came at a price. While the deal gets Williams, now 36, out of prison, it disqualifies him from compensation and leaves a man who has always insisted on his innocence with a murder conviction. It also fails to hold any of the parties who played a role in convicting Williams—the police, the prosecutor, the judge—to account.
Clearly, Williams’s attorneys must have believed it was the best way to get him out of prison. “This was an impossible deal for Corey to turn down,” Amir Ali, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, which helped represent Williams, told The Washington Post. “I think, given the circumstances, it was the best possible outcome for Corey.”
But how did 20 years in prison followed by a guilty plea for a crime Williams says he didn’t commit become the “best possible outcome”? And what does it say about the enduring failures of justice for Williams—and so many like him?
To understand how Williams wound up being sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, it helps to know how justice worked for years in Caddo Parish, where he was convicted.
Caddo Parish, which sits in the northwest corner of Louisiana, has a long and shameful history of criminal-justice abuses. Dubbed “Bloody Caddo” during the reign of white terror that followed the Civil War, it has made a name for itself in more recent decades for handing out death sentences at a higher rate than almost any other county in the country. Indeed, between 2010 and 2014, the parish was responsible for sentencing eight of the 12 people sent to death row in the state—a fact that seemed to please the acting district attorney at the time, Dale Cox. As he famously told the Shreveport Times in 2015, “I think we need to kill more people.… I think the death penalty should be used more often.”
At the same time, Caddo has come under increasing fire for serious instances of prosecutorial misconduct. It was in Caddo Parish that Glenn Ford was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1984, ultimately spending 30 years on death row before he was finally exonerated and released in 2014. (Ford died from terminal cancer shortly thereafter.) The parish also convicted Rodricus Crawford, who was recently exonerated, of murdering his son, despite the medical evidence to the contrary.
Such was the world in which Williams was tried and convicted in 1998 by a prosecutor who had already made a name for himself by sending men to death row. The prosecutor’s name was Hugo Holland, and before sending Williams to prison, he had tried dozens of death-penalty cases and put at least 10 people on Louisiana’s death row, most of whom are also men of color. Yet, in later years, his practices would raise serious questions: Half of his death-penalty convictions have since been overturned, while two are awaiting appeals. He has also been accused of withholding evidence in at least three of those cases, including Williams’s, according to a Washington Post profile by Radley Balko.
In the years since prosecuting Williams’s case, Holland has become a well-known—and controversial—figure in Louisiana. In 2012, he was fired from his job as assistant district attorney after it was discovered that he had doctored documents as part of a scheme to procure a cache of M-16 rifles from the federal government’s military-surplus program. (The guns were apparently intended to arm Holland and several of his colleagues who had formed a paramilitary-style “Zombie Response Team” in the parish.) Yet he quickly found his footing as a successful prosecutor-for-hire, reportedly earning some $200,000 in 2015. He is also a lobbyist for Caddo Parish and represents law-and-order interests in the Louisiana state government, where he continues to push for the death penalty. As he told The Advocate in a profile published last year, “The only thing that we can do with animals that do stuff like that is put them down.”
When I contacted Holland for comment via e-mail, he wasn’t aware that Williams had been released on a plea deal. But his written reply was unapologetic: “We didnt conceal anything. Thats horseshit. Didnt know he was out. He shouldnt be. He is a murderer.”
For G. Ben Cohen, Williams’s longtime attorney and advocate, Holland’s response was as brazen as it was troubling: “There is nothing more dangerous for Louisiana’s justice system than prosecutors like Hugo Holland, who have a toxic combination of hubris, deceit, and indifference.”
Cohen has good reason to know.
For almost two decades, he and Williams’s other attorneys tried unsuccessfully to win Williams’s freedom. They focused on a host of errors committed during both the investigation and trial, ranging from incompetent defense counsel to the fact of Williams’s youth and disability. In particular, Williams’s attorneys had focused prior appeals on the 12-hour interrogation to which Williams—a 16-year-old who “still sucked his thumb, urinated himself on a daily basis, and regularly ate dirt and paper”—was subjected. But none of the higher courts found error sufficient to reverse the conviction.
Then, in 2015, Williams’s counsel located exculpatory evidence that had been hidden by prosecutors for nearly 20 years. This evidence is called Brady material after the 1963 US Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, in which the Supreme Court held that prosecutors—by virtue of that fact that they are privy to police investigations and other investigatory materials—are obligated to give the defense anything that might be useful for their client. Since prosecutors are the gatekeepers, they often end up deciding what information is useful or irrelevant, and defendants regularly don’t know what Brady information is available, if any.
In this case, according to the brief submitted by Williams’s lawyers, the prosecutors did not disclose the existence of tapes of interviews with witnesses to the crime. They continued to hide the tapes for a dozen years, even as Williams’s attorneys requested them again and again. As a result, the defense team was forced to rely on “summaries” of the witness statements. Such summaries are common practice in Louisiana, but, Williams’s lawyers argued, they appeared in his case to have been directly “altered” to ensure that Williams looked guilty. Some statements were omitted altogether.
So what did the actual recordings, obtained by Williams’s lawyers in 2015, reveal? According to Williams’s lawyers, they indicate that multiple eyewitnesses—including the original officers who investigated the crime—believed that Williams was innocent. “It sounds like to me y’all all decided y’all going to blame it on Corey,” one of the detectives said during an interview with some of the older men who’d been at the crime scene. There was also an interview with another witness who suggested that Moore was likely guilty, not Williams. Yet Williams’s lawyers never received this information and, without it, weren’t able to mount an effective defense that their client was taking the fall for a group of older, savvier men.
This is what Williams’s lawyers argued when they appealed his case for the second time to the US Supreme Court earlier this year. And as news of the story spread, it wasn’t just defense attorneys who began viewing the Williams verdict askance; law enforcement also came to Williams’s defense. Earlier this year, 44 former prosecutors and DOJ officials signed an amicus brief arguing that Williams should be freed and his case retried based on the obligation prosecutors have to disclose evidence under Brady.
“Prosecutors bear a special responsibility for a fair and just result in all criminal prosecutions,” the brief summarizes, a fact that seems to have eluded Holland in this case.
These days, Caddo Parish has a new district attorney, James Stewart, who was elected in 2015 largely as a progressive choice. (He was backed by, among others, George Soros, whose Louisiana Safety and Justice PAC gave hefty sums to Stewart’s campaign.) Williams’s attorneys credit him for releasing their client when prior DAs refused to do so.
The deal Caddo Parish offered Williams isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s common for prosecutors to offer defendants with credible claims of innocence a lighter sentence in exchange for immediate release. Defendants take them because proving innocence can take years. In 2016, Stewart made a similar deal with Curtis Davis, who was also wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. Davis accepted a plea of manslaughter in exchange for his freedom. Now Davis works with criminal-justice organizations.
The manslaughter settlement allows everyone involved to save face: No one accepts responsibility, and Williams is released. (The prosecutor’s filings in Williams’s case indicate that they contemplated prosecuting Williams for aiding and abetting, even if evidence cast doubt on whether he was the shooter. Williams also forfeited his right to appeal or bring any civil action against law enforcement.) Williams’s attorneys credited Stewart for making the plea deal when his predecessor would not. From a practical perspective, it’s understandable why Williams would take the deal. His lawyers say that he has suffered greatly in prison because of his disability and is being abused by other inmates in Angola. But it’s hard to see this as justice, particularly for a man whom Louisiana has fought so hard to kill.
On the morning of May 22, pictures were published of Williams leaving Angola flanked by his lawyers and supporters. He looked happy, if dazed. Williams, like many convicted youth, never had a chance to grow up, finish school, get work experience, or contribute to society. Now, without financial resources, Williams must rely again on the people who helped him get out.
As for Hugo Holland, he continues to collect his paycheck, a prosecutor not in the least chastened by his errors, but, rather, emboldened that he was almost able to get away with murder.