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Name: Williams v. Swarthout
Case #: 11-57255
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 10/23/2014

Trial court’s accidental pretrial instruction that defendant had pled guilty was prejudicial error under the Sixth Amendment despite court’s subsequent corrective instructions. While giving pretrial instructions to the jury, the trial court mistakenly stated, “I will now explain the presumption of innocence . . . . The defendant has pleaded guilty to the charges.” Counsel did not object and the trial continued. When the jury began deliberations, it sent the court a note asking whether Williams had actually pled guilty. The court explained its mistake to the jury and asked if any of the jurors thought they could not deliver a fair verdict. None responded. Two days later, a juror sent the court a letter stating that he could not be fair because he had viewed all the evidence through the lens that Williams had already pled guilty. The court replaced that juror with an alternate and admonished the remaining jurors that it was wrong to have viewed the evidence as supporting a guilty plea, and that the jurors could not have had that point of view because they were supposed to be fair and impartial. The court then asked whether the remaining jurors had listened to the evidence through that lens. Again, none responded. They continued deliberations and convicted Williams of multiple counts. On direct appeal, the California Court of Appeal found constitutional error, but held it was harmless. The federal district court denied Williams’ habeas petition. He appealed. Held: Reversed. Where constitutional error is found, a federal court reviews its prejudicial impact under Brecht v. Abrahamson (1993) 507 U.S. 619, without applying AEDPA deference. The pretrial instruction that Williams had pled guilty was not harmless under Brecht. The prosecution’s case relied almost entirely on the victim’s testimony, which the jury heard while under the impression that Williams’ was guilty. The trial court’s subsequent corrective instructions were ineffective at curing the misstatement. After the first corrective instruction, a juror came forward and admitted that he could not be impartial and the second instruction essentially encouraged the remaining jurors to deny that the trial court’s error affected their impartiality.