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Williams v. Trammell

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

August 26, 2013

STERLING B. WILLIAMS, Petitioner - Appellant,
ANITA TRAMMELL, Warden, Oklahoma State Penitentiary, [*] Respondent - Appellee.

D.C. No. 4:02-CV-00377-JHP-FHM N.D. Oklahoma.

Before HARTZ, MURPHY, HOLMES, Circuit Judges.


Harris L Hartz, Circuit Judge.

An Oklahoma jury convicted Applicant Sterling Williams of the first-degree murder of LeAnna Hand and assault and battery with intent to kill her roommate Elizabeth Hill. On the recommendation of the jury, Williams received a sentence of death for the murder and 99 years' imprisonment for the assault and battery.

After unsuccessfully appealing to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA), see Williams v. State, 22 P.3d 702, 733 (Okla. Crim. App. 2001), and unsuccessfully pursuing postconviction relief in state court, see Williams v. State, 31 P.3d 1046, 1054 (Okla. Crim. App. 2001), Williams filed an application for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. He claimed, among other things, that the trial court had violated Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625 (1980), by failing to instruct the jury on either of the lesser-included offenses of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. The district court denied relief but granted a certificate of appealability (COA) on Williams's Beck claim. See 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(1)(A) (requiring a COA to appeal the denial of a § 2254 application). Williams obtained a COA from this court on two additional issues. He now appeals the district court's denial of relief (although limiting his Beck claims to his requested second-degree-murder instruction) and renews his request for a COA on additional issues.

We hold that Williams was entitled to an instruction on second-degree depraved-mind murder. Following this circuit's precedent in Phillips v. Workman, 604 F.3d 1202 (10th Cir. 2010), we decide that the OCCA applied a rule contrary to that set forth in Beck, and we therefore owe its decision no deference under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). And, again following our precedent, primarily Phillips, we hold that the evidence would permit a rational jury to acquit Williams of first-degree murder and convict him of second-degree murder. Because our ruling on this issue will require a new trial on the charge of first-degree murder, all other issues that relate solely to that conviction are moot. That leaves only Williams's request for a COA on the claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at the guilt phase, which we deny because reasonable jurists would not debate the district court's resolution of the claim.


We begin with the OCCA's description of the pertinent events, as Williams does not challenge that court's factual findings and we must presume them to be correct, see 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1):

¶ 2 . . . In May of 1997, [Williams] worked as an independent contractor for Willard Enterprises Colorado Choice Meat Company. He had sold [LeAnna] Hand meat on prior occasions. On May 14, 1997, [Williams] phoned Hand and said he had some free meat he was going to give away and that he would bring it by her home. At approximately 11:00 a.m., [Hand's roommate Elizabeth] Hill was in her room dressing when she heard a knock at the front door. A moment later, she heard the answering machine on the telephone click on. Hill picked up the phone in her bedroom and discovered Hand's mother on the line. Hill spoke for just a moment, then she heard Hand call her name from the other room. She opened her bedroom door and saw Hand struggling with [Williams]. Hill heard Hand fall to the floor and saw [Williams] standing over her body. Hill immediately shut her bedroom door and locked it. She tried to call 9-1-1 but could not get an open phone line. [Williams] then kicked down her bedroom door and knocked the phone out of her hand. He told Hill to be quiet. Instead, she screamed and tried to run out of the room. She escaped from her room, but [Williams] tackled her in the hallway. He threw her to the ground, climbed on top of her, and put both hands around her neck. Despite [Williams's] attempts to choke Hill, she fought back and was able to free herself and run out of the front door of the duplex.
¶ 3 Hill was running to a neighbor's home when the manager of a nearby apartment complex, Carol Gorman, saw her and waved her over. Gorman observed bloody hand prints on Hill's neck. Meanwhile, as soon as Hill ran out of the duplex, [Williams] also left. He walked to his car parked in the driveway of the duplex and drove away.
¶ 4 The police arrived at the scene to find Hand dead in her living room. She had suffered a seven inch stab wound to her chest. The knife cut through her ribs, through a portion of her left lung, completely through her heart and into her right lung. The knife was still in her body, tangled in her clothes. Near the victim the police found a box from the Colorado Choice Meat Company, a roll of duct tape, a baseball cap with the company logo, and a pair of gloves. Nothing was missing from the duplex, including cash Hill had left on her bed.
¶ 5 On the same day, [Williams] phoned his employer and said he had just killed a girl and had to go to Chicago to hide out. [Williams] withdrew money from his back [sic] account. [Williams] also phoned his girlfriend, Consuela Drew, and told her he was going to jail. An all points bulletin was issued containing a description of [Williams's] car. The next day, May 15, 1997, Ms. Drew again spoke with [Williams] and told him to turn himself in to the police. That same day [Williams] was stopped by authorities in Alexandria, Louisiana. He had a serious cut to the index finger on his left hand, and scratches on his neck, face and chest. [Williams] cooperated with the officers and asked that the $121 dollars taken from him be given to his children.
¶ 6 A t-shirt retrieved from [Williams] later tested positive for Hand's DNA. The knife found at the murder scene was found to match a butcher block set of knives in [Williams's] home.

Williams, 22 P.3d at 708–09.

Williams presented no evidence at the guilt phase of his trial. Much of the OCCA's account of these events is taken from the testimony of Hill, the only person present in the home who testified at trial. Hill testified that she knew there was a struggle between Williams and Hand in part because she heard Hand call out her name in a distressed voice shortly before hearing a thump, which she believed to be Hand's body hitting the floor. Hill also provided details of her own confrontation with Williams after he tackled her in the hallway. She recalled that he placed both hands around her neck and squeezed hard enough that she could not breathe. But she did not remember whether she fought back or how she was able to escape. She testified that it was possible that Williams had let her go.

Further suggesting a struggle between Williams and Hand was the testimony of Dr. Robert L. Hemphill, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Hand. Dr. Hemphill testified that he observed "'defensive wounds'" on Hand, which, he explained, often occur when a victim "is trying to ward off blows being struck by a sharp instrument, [or] attempt[ing] to grab the hand that has the instrument in it or to grab the instrument itself." R., Vol. II (Tr. of Jury Trial Proceedings, Vol. IV at 769 (State v. Williams, No. CF-97-2385 (D. Okla. April 22, 1999) (internal quotation marks omitted)). He said that the fatal wound was caused by a knife that entered the left side of Hand's chest and was still entangled in Hand's clothing at the time of the examination; its blade measured eight inches in length by one-and-three-quarters inches at its widest point. Dr. Hemphill estimated that the knife wound was approximately six to seven inches deep and was inflicted by a single, rapid thrust of considerable force. Also, Mark Willard, Williams's employer at Colorado Choice Meat Company, testified that he received a phone call from Williams shortly after the events at the home of Hand and Hill. ...

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