Alvin Ray Williams was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1994. Williams was denied relief in the direct appeal and petition for ineffective assistance of counsel. In December of 2015, Williams filed a petition to reinvest jurisdiction in the Pulaski County Circuit Court to hear his petition for writ of error coram nobis. Essentially, Williams argued that law enforcement withheld evidence that would have supported his self-defense claim. The Arkansas Supreme Court granted his petition and sent the case down to the Pulaski County Circuit Court.
The Pulaski County Circuit Court denied Williams a hearing on his petition and denied the appointment of counsel. The Circuit Court’s order did not contain any reasoning or legal analysis. Thus, the Circuit Court denied the petition on the same evidence that the Supreme Court remanded the case.
On appeal, Williams argued that he was entitled to a hearing and the appointment of counsel. Williams maintained that the Circuit Court was required to hold a hearing when the case was remanded. The Supreme Court agreed and cited Penn v. State, 282 Ark. 571, 577, 670 S.W.2d 426, 429 (1984) (“If [the petition for writ of error coram nobis] has merit, by all means a writ should be granted; if the petitioner fails in his burden of proof, then at least a hearing will have resulted. There will be no void in the system as there is now.”)
The result was certainly expected; however, there were notable concurring and dissenting opinions.
The concurring opinion by Justice Hart was a dynamic indictment of the current mindset preferring procedural hurdles and finality to addressing the merits and justice. Justice Hart condemned the current practice of requiring “due diligence” to be shown in a petition for error coram nobis relief. Essentially, Justice Hart argued there are two problems with the current requirement. First, the Arkansas Supreme Court has not consistently defined the “due diligence” requirement. Second, she eloquently stated, “The people of the State of Arkansas gain nothing by unjustly imprisoning one of its fellow citizens.” Fundamentally, she made it clear that justice should never be trumped by procedural pitfalls. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, Justice Hart was alone in feeling that way.
The dissenting opinion by Justice Wood, which was joined by Chief Justice Kemp, was hopefully an error in word-play. Justice Wood argued that the appeal should be affirmed because “due diligence” was not complied with, as she argued unsuccessfully in the original grant of the petition to reinvest jurisdiction. Justice Wood was taking issue with the merits of the error coram nobis petition; however, the merits of the petition were not up for consideration. Rather, the issue was simply when a petition to reinvest jurisdiction is granted, should the trial court be required to hold a hearing and make findings. The answer based upon case law is clearly yes. Justice Wood instead addressed the merits of the argument to reassert her belief that the petition to reinvest jurisdiction should have never been granted. Bryan Garner has written and spoken numerous times that the party that controls the question controls the answer. It seems Justice Wood was trying to answer a different question to arrive at a different answer.