Judge Confuses Guilty/Not Guilty, Sex Crimes Conviction Overturned​
This is going to sound like a simple mistake. This is going to sound like a legal "technicality" that has resulted in a sex offender going free. But when a judge upends a central pillar of American law, even accidentally, there's no other outcome.
Here's the story, from ABA Journal:
The Los Angeles judge erred during the December 2006 voir dire in the sex-crime trial of Bryant Keith Williams, according to the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The judge said Williams had pleaded guilty to the charges, though he intended to say Williams had pleaded not guilty.
The judge's error came to light when jurors who had been deliberating for less than an hour sent the judge a note. "As a group," the note read, "we the jury feel we heard the judge state the defendant pleaded guilty before the trial. Is this true?"
The judge tried to correct his mistake. He said that the defendant pleaded "not" guilty, and asked the jurors if they could still look back on the trial with that in mind. One juror was dismissed. The rest said that they could, and returned a guilty verdict.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. The court said, "Viewed in the context of the trial as a whole... the judge's initial misstatement and his ineffective attempts to cure it were devastating to Williams."
It's also got to be pretty devastating to Williams's alleged victim. How Appealing reports that the circuit court had to throw out a 50 year sentence.
But I don't think the 9th Circuit had any other choice. From the perspective of all the jurors, Williams had already pleaded guilty to the crime. Who knows how the jurors rationalized still having a trial after a guilty plea. Maybe they thought Williams changed his mind? Maybe they thought the point was to see if Williams could prove his innocence? Who knows. It doesn't really matter. What seems clear is that the jurors did not think that Williams was innocent unless the prosecution could prove beyond a reasonable doubt otherwise.
Williams can be re-tried. That would seem like the most fair outcome for Williams and his alleged victim.