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Williams v. Price

September 09, 2003



Before: Alito and McKEE, Circuit Judges, and SCHWARZER,*fn1 District Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alito, Circuit Judge


Argued: February 10, 2003


This is an appeal from a District Court order denying a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by Ronald A. Williams. Williams, who is serving a term of life imprisonment in Pennsylvania for first-degree murder, argues that his right to an impartial jury was abridged because the state courts refused in post-trial proceedings to admit certain evidence of racial bias on the part of members of the jury. Williams sought to introduce this evidence to show, among other things, that jurors lied during voir dire when they denied racial prejudice. The state courts refused to consider the evidence at issue based on the well-established evidence rule that generally bars juror testimony for the purpose of impeaching a verdict (the "no impeachment" rule). We hold that the state courts' refusal to receive some but not all of this evidence violated Williams's clearly established constitutional rights, and we therefore vacate the decision of the District Court and remand for an evidentiary hearing at which Williams will have the opportunity to introduce the improperly excluded evidence and to attempt to prove that a juror lied during voir dire.


On August 5, 1984, at about 10:15 p.m., Archie Bradley stepped off a city bus outside a truck depot maintained by his employer, Nor-Sub Trucking, in Cranberry, Pennsylvania. Minutes later, witnesses heard five gunshots nearby. One witness also saw the triggerman standing over Bradley's body and holding a gun. Immediately before the witnesses contacted police, a patrolling traffic officer observed a suspicious car leaving the Nor-Sub parking lot. He noted the license plate and initiated a pursuit that escalated in intensity. The driver of the fleeing car threw various objects out the window, striking the police car with one of them, and succeeded in eluding the officer, but the car overturned on an embankment. Police discovered it abandoned. Retracing the route of the car chase, police recovered a Mac-10 firearm, a silencer, and an ammunition cartridge, and the police matched the gun forensically to the object that had struck the police cruiser. A search of the vehicle yielded more guns and ammunition, as well as a slip of paper on which was written "Nor-Sub 10:15."

In the early-morning hours of August 6, Williams telephoned Jewel Hayes, an intimate acquaintance, explaining that he was stranded somewhere and needed a ride. Hayes agreed, but when she could not find the designated pick-up location, she asked a police officer for directions. Police traced the phone call and arrested Williams and his brother Raymond. The eyewitness to the shooting identified Williams as the gunman. A 911 caller who claimed to have witnessed the vehicle leaving the crime scene initially described the car as blue and its driver as white, but this witness later decided that the car was gray and the driver was black. The witness eventually identified Williams, who is African American, as the driver. Both parties in their briefs refer to other inculpatory and exculpatory evidence, but none of it has a bearing on this appeal.

During voir dire proceedings in the Williamses' 1985 trial, the trial court asked two questions regarding racial bias:

Do you personally believe that blacks as a group are more likely to commit crimes of a violent nature involving firearms?

Can you listen to and judge the testimony of a black person in the same fashion as the testimony of a white person, giving each its deserved credibility?

All the jurors who were selected to serve answered "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second. The jury convicted both Williams and his brother and sentenced them to death.

Shortly after the verdicts were returned, Williams's attorney filed post-trial motions. Among other things, he sought a new trial on the ground that the jury had received and had been influenced by information not introduced in court. In support of this motion, Williams's attorney submitted the affidavit of juror Judith Montgomery. Montgomery, who died in 1996, stated that "[p]rior to the deliberation process as to Ronald Alfred Williams' sentencing," another juror had told the entire jury that, according to information received from an alternate, Ronald Williams had committed two murders, that Raymond Williams was wanted for two other murders, and that, "if this jury did not give the death penalty, (regarding Raymond Williams) another [jury] would." App. 8a.

On February 11, 1985, the trial judge held an evidentiary hearing on these allegations. Raymond Williams and his attorney were present at the hearing, but neither Ronald Williams nor his lawyer was there. At the beginning of the hearing, the judge stated that "a juror may not impeach his or her own verdict" but that there is "a narrow exception... allowing post-trial testimony of extraneous influences which might have affected the jury during their deliberation." App. 46a-47a. Montgomery, the other jurors, and a reporter for a local newspaper who had overheard a conversation among the jurors then testified. This testimony revealed that, after the guilt-phase verdict but before the penalty-phase verdict, half of the jurors had heard that Ronald Williams was wanted on other murder charges. See Commonwealth v. Williams, 522 A.2d 1058, 1066 (Pa. 1987) (direct appeal of Raymond Williams). The trial judge nevertheless refused the request for a new trial because he was satisfied by the testimony of the jurors that they had not been influenced by this information in imposing sentences of death. See id. On appeal, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated the death sentences imposed on both brothers and remanded for the imposition of sentences of life imprisonment. Id. at 1067; Commonwealth v. Williams, 561 A.2d 714, 719 (Pa. 1989) (direct appeal of Ronald Williams). The state supreme court concluded that prejudicial extraneous information had tainted the death verdicts, but the court saw no need to disturb the guilty verdicts since the testimony at the posttrial hearing had established conclusively that none of the jurors had heard the objectionable information until after the guilty verdicts had been returned. 522 A.2d at 1065-68 & n.5; 561 A.2d 719.*fn2

In 1994, Ronald Williams, represented by new counsel, filed a state Post-Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA") petition in which he contended that members of the jury had lied during voir dire when they answered the questions about racial prejudice. In support of this motion, Williams relied on a new affidavit by Montgomery and another affidavit by Jewel Hayes, who had testified at trial.

Montgomery's affidavit stated:

[W]hen I was Juror No. 9 in the trial of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Ronald Williams and Raymond Williams... I was called "a nigger lover" and other derogatory names by other members of the jury. Remarks were made to me such as "I hope your daughter marries one of them".... The jurors were given information by an alternate juror who was told by [the] Sheriff... that the "men were wanted in other states and if we don't get them another state would" and "that Raymond [Williams, Appellant's brother and co-defendant] was going to die anyway as he shot and crippled a man for life in Michigan. The man lived and was able and willing to testify against Raymond, so his black ass was cooked anyway."

App. 6a.

Hayes's affidavit averred:

Subsequent to the proceedings in this case... I ran into Juror Number Two (2) in the lobby of the Courthouse.... Upon seeing me he stated "All niggers do is cause trouble" I am not sure whether this was stated directly to me but it was stated for my benefit and loudly enough for me to hear and to get a rise out of me. During our confrontation he also stated "I should go back where I came from."

App. 7a.

On July 18, 1995, the court held an evidentiary hearing on this issue. Prior to the receipt of testimony, the court ruled that evidence of what went on "in the courtroom, or in the jury room" would not be admitted but that evidence of any extraneous information that might have affected the guilty verdict would be received. App. 90a. Montgomery again testified, and she reaffirmed that the information about the other murder charges against Williams had not been received until after the guilty verdict was returned. Id. at 48a-57a. Hayes was not called as a witness.

The PCRA Court denied Williams's petition. Stating that Williams had argued that racial slurs had allegedly been uttered by jurors "during jury deliberations," *fn3 the Court wrote that "it is firmly established that after a verdict is recorded and the jury discharged, a juror may not impeach the verdict by his or her own testimony." App. 52a. The Court added that, while there is an exception to this rule for "extraneous influences on the jury deliberation process," the alleged slurs were not extraneous and thus did not fall within the exception. Id. The Court did not explain why it did not consider Hayes's evidence.

On appeal to the Superior Court, Williams argued that his federal constitutional right to an impartial jury had been abridged by the PCRA Court's refusal to consider the evidence in the Montgomery and Hayes affidavits for the purpose of determining whether jurors had lied during voir dire. See Amend. App. 40a-43a. Since the PCRA Court had refused to consider this evidence due to the "no impeachment" rule, the clear implication of Williams's argument was either that this rule did not apply when evidence was offered to prove that a juror lied during voir dire or that under these circumstances the rule had to give way to his constitutional right to an impartial jury. However, the discussion in Williams's brief did not spell out either of these arguments, and the Superior Court affirmed based on the PCRA Court's analysis. Commonwealth v. Williams, No. 0076, slip op. at 8 (Pa. Super. Nov. 14, 1996).

Williams filed a petition for allocatur that raised the issue now before us in virtually the same words as his Superior Court brief, Amend. App. at 95a-98a, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied review. Commonwealth v. Williams, 699 A.2d 735 (Pa. 1997).

Williams then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. A Magistrate Judge issued a report and recommendation concluding that the petition should be denied. At the outset of her discussion of the pertinent issue, the Magistrate Judge noted that Williams had "submitted affidavits of one juror [i.e., Montgomery] and one trial witness [i.e., Hayes], R & R at 33, but the Magistrate Judge made no further reference to Hayes. Indeed, the Magistrate Judge later stated that "the state courts refused to consider [Williams's] proposed submission of affidavits by two jurors " based on the "no impeachment" rule, and the Magistrate Judge concluded that Williams had not "demonstrated that the state courts' actions were 'contrary to' Tanner [v. United States, 483 U.S. 107 (1987)] and other relevant Supreme Court cases, which do not permit the type of post-verdict jury impeachment testimony [Williams ...

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