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Government of Virgin Islands v. Williams

filed: December 27, 1989.


On Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands, D.C. Crim. No. 88-00003.

Gibbons, Chief Judge, Mansmann and Nygaard, Circuit Judges.

Author: Gibbons


GIBBONS, Chief Judge:

On January 8, 1988, the government of the Virgin Islands charged Raymond Williams with a variety of felonies arising from an incident on January 1 in which Williams allegedly killed two individuals and seriously injured another. The trial commenced on November 16, 1988, and on November 24 a jury in the District Court of the Virgin Islands convicted Williams of second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, attempted homicide, assault in the first degree, and the unlawful use of a deadly weapon during the commission of a violent crime. The district court sentenced him on the following day to sixty years of imprisonment. Williams appeals from the sentence, contending that he is entitled to a new trial. We will affirm.


Sometime during the evening of January 1, 1988, an argument broke out between Williams and the woman with whom he had lived for the past several months, Sandra Williams.*fn1 Appellant began beating Ms. Williams, who screamed for help. Ms. Williams' two brothers, Felix and Richard Pierre, as well as her 77-year-old aunt, Idona Williams, came to her aid. When they arrived, Williams attacked Richard Pierre with a hammer, who attempted to defend himself by brandishing a knife. Williams grabbed this knife and stabbed Idona Williams and Felix Pierre to death. He also stabbed Richard Pierre a number of times, causing permanent damage to Pierre's right arm. Williams was immediately arrested.

After formal charges were issued, Williams on January 28, 1988 filed notice of his intention to assert the insanity defense. The district court ordered the defendant to undergo a psychiatric examination to determine (a) whether there was any basis for his claim that he was legally insane at the time the crimes were committed, and (b) whether the defendant was mentally competent to stand trial. The ensuing psychiatric evaluation revealed that although Williams had a history of bouts with schizophrenia, there was no indication that this disorder either caused him to commit the criminal acts with which he was charged, or impaired his ability to stand trial. At Williams' request, the court ordered further psychiatric evaluation on June 9, which furnished the same results.

On November 16, 1988, Williams' trial commenced. Jury selection took place that morning, and was supervised by a United States magistrate, Geoffrey W. Barnard. Neither Williams nor the government objected to this arrangement. Once the jury was empanelled, the district judge took control of the proceeding. Before the trial continued, however, defense counsel raised for a third time the issue of Williams' mental competency, moving for yet another psychiatric examination. After hearing extensive testimony from Williams, the district court found him to be competent to stand trial, and accordingly denied his motion. The trial proceeded, and the following week Williams was convicted.


Three months after Williams filed his notice of appeal, the Supreme Court rendered its decision in Gomez v. United States, 490 U.S. 858, 109 S. Ct. 2237, 104 L. Ed. 2d 923 (1989). In that case, the Court held that the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(3), does not authorize federal magistrates to preside over jury selection in felony proceedings when a defendant affirmatively objects. Williams attempts to take advantage of Gomez by arguing that he is entitled to a new trial because the magistrate in his case lacked jurisdiction to supervise voir dire. In response, the government argues that Williams failed to object to the use of the magistrate, and that Gomez therefore cannot serve as a basis for relief. We are unpersuaded that the Supreme Court intended in Gomez to prohibit the use of a magistrate to conduct voir dire when a defendant consents, and thus we reject Williams' argument.

A. The Federal Magistrates Act

In 1968, Congress abolished the office of the United States commissioner and in its place erected the modern federal magistrates system. The main purpose of the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 631-639, was twofold: to improve the quality of the judicial officers serving just below the level of federal judges, and to drastically enlarge the responsibilities of those officers so as to relieve the heavy burdens on the federal docket that in 1968 had reached critical mass. As the House Report accompanying the bill explained:

By raising the standards of the lowest judicial office and by increasing the scope of the responsibilities that can be discharged by that office, the system will be made capable of increasing the overall efficiency of the Federal judiciary, while at the same time providing a higher standard of justice at the point where many individuals first come into contact with the courts.

H.R.Rep. No. 1629, 90th Cong., 2d Sess. 3, reprinted in 1968 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin. News 4252, 4257.

To that end, the Federal Magistrates Act of 1968, Pub. L. No. 90-578, 82 Stat. 1107, reprinted in 1968 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin. News 1280 (codified as amended at 28 U.S.C. §§ 631-639), empowered the district courts to appoint United States magistrates "in such numbers and to serve at such locations within the judicial district" as the courts deemed appropriate, id. at § 631(a). Congress hoped to improve the quality of the magistrates by, among other things, requiring magistrates to be attorneys, id. at § 631(b)(1), strictly regulating other jobs that magistrates could hold, id. at §§ 631(c), 632(a), and abolishing the previous system of payment on a per-case basis, id. at § 634. Concommitant with these improvements in the professional atmosphere of the magistracy, the Act dramatically expanded the scope of duties that magistrates could perform. In addition to taking on the "powers and duties conferred or imposed upon United States commissioners," id. at § 636(a)(1), magistrates were empowered to serve as special masters in certain civil matters, to assist district court judges in the conduct of pretrial and discovery proceedings, and to conduct preliminary reviews of applications for post-trial relief. Id. at 636(a)(2)-(4); 18 U.S.C. § 3401(b). As presently amended, the Act now goes much further, empowering magistrates to conduct any civil trial on consent of the parties, 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), as well as to preside at criminal trials involving "minor offenses" so long as the defendant waives his right to the presence of a federal judge. 18 U.S.C. § 3401(b).

In addition to enumerating these powers, the Act also provides that "[a] magistrate may be assigned such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(3). In 1976, Congress promulgated a spate of modifications to the Federal Magistrates Act as part of its firm belief that the Act had achieved impressive success since 1968 and that it was time to increase even further the scope of responsibilities that could be delegated to federal magistrates. See H.R.Rep. No. 94-1609, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 5, reprinted in 1976 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin. News 6162, 6166-67. One of these modifications was to enhance the importance of the "additional duties" clause, which had been a part of the original legislation, by moving the provision to a separate subsection of the Act. Id. at 6172. In so doing, Congress hoped to imbue the system with greater flexibility by providing district court judges the opportunity to "continue innovative experimentations in the use of this judicial officer. At the same time, placing this authorization in a separate subsection emphasizes that it is not restricted in any way by any other specific grant of authority to magistrates." Id.

It can hardly be denied that the system created by the Federal Magistrates Act has exceeded the highest expectations of the legislators who conceived it. In modern federal practice, federal magistrates account for a staggering volume of judicial work. In 1987, for example, magistrates presided over nearly half a million judicial proceedings. See S. Rep. No. 100-293, 100th Cong., 2d Sess. 7, reprinted in 1988 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin. News 5564. As a recent Senate Report noted, "[in] particular, magistrates [in 1987] conducted over 134,000 preliminary proceedings in felony cases; handled more than 197,000 references of civil and criminal pretrial matters; reviewed more than 6,500 social security appeals and more than 27,000 prisoner filings; and tried more than 95,000 misdemeanors and 4,900 civil cases on consent of ...

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