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Life-without-parole sentences are exploding. But America’s legal defense system hasn’t kept pace.

Shuranda Williams spent more than a year in the county jail here, waiting to talk to someone about fighting the murder charge she faces. The police have said she was involved in the 2019 killing of a suspected drug dealer; she insists she wasn’t.

If she’s convicted of capital murder, Williams, 44, faces a minimum sentence of life in prison without parole. She wanted a lawyer to help her make her case and to argue for her release from jail, but she couldn’t afford to hire one.
If prosecutors had announced they were seeking the death penalty, Williams would have been guaranteed a pair of lawyers whose expertise in capital cases has been vetted by a court-appointed screening committee. The government would have paid for an investigator and a mental health expert to examine her case. And under national legal guidelines, her lawyers would have had a special obligation to aggressively assert every possible argument to defend her.

But because Williams could face life without parole — a sentence that also means she would die behind bars — she didn’t get any of that.

The lawyer a judge appointed to defend her, George Ashford III, is not on the approved list for death penalty cases. He has not hired an investigator or mental health expert for her. He visited Williams once, wrote her one letter, and has not responded to her phone calls, she told judges. When she wrote to judges for help, they either didn’t respond — or they sent her back to Ashford.

“I explained to him what happened that night, and I haven’t talked to him since,” Williams said in a phone call from jail. She was frustrated that Ashford hadn’t pursued a motion to reduce her $525,000 bond. “At least if I got out, I could work and pay for a decent lawyer,” she said.

Ashford said there was little he could do given the pandemic and the circumstances of the crime. After 35 years as a criminal defense lawyer handling many felonies, Ashford said, “Realistically I can pretty much read a police report and determine what the likely or average outcome for that case is going to be.”

Life-without-parole sentences are steadily replacing the death penalty across the United States. Almost 56,000 people nationwide are now serving sentences that will keep them locked up until they die, an increase of 66 percent since 2003, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for shorter prison terms.

By comparison, only 2,500 people nationally are on death row according to the Death Penalty Information Center; the number of new death sentences dwindled to 18 last year, as prosecutors increasingly seek life instead. Executions are less popular with Americans than they used to be, according to Gallup, and are astronomically expensive to taxpayers. In Dallas, the district attorney’s office says it asks for capital punishment only for egregious crimes where defendants present a continuing threat to society.

But as life without parole displaces capital punishment, the country’s patchwork system of public defense hasn’t kept up. Only 11 states report having minimum qualifications for lawyers who represent impoverished people facing a lifetime behind bars, according to the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center. In Texas, there’s a continuing dispute over whether the standards for death penalty defense apply if prosecutors seek life without parole instead.

Most states have no rules, The Marshall Project and The Dallas Morning News found. Someone just out of law school could handle a life-without-parole case in Illinois or Nebraska. In California, where a third of the prison population is serving some form of a life sentence, minimum qualifications apply only in death penalty cases; the state hasn’t executed anyone since 2006.

Other states have minimal standards. South Carolina requires just three years of experience in criminal law; Arkansas specifies that lawyers should have handled at least one homicide trial.

When it comes to life without parole, “the idea that you would treat these cases like you would treat other felonies is somewhat incomprehensible to me,” said Pamela Metzger, the director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “The sentencing stakes are so high and often irreversible.” People facing life have far fewer chances to appeal than those facing capital punishment, and their cases draw far less scrutiny, she said.

In Michigan, where 4,000 people are serving life without parole, the indigent defense commission adopted new standards that would require lawyers who handle such cases to have at least five years of significant experience, including at least seven felony jury trials. But the standards have yet to be approved by other state regulators.

Many legal experts say that people facing life without parole should receive the same level of representation as those facing the death penalty.

“Life without parole is just another form of the death penalty, just a slower version of it,” said Lawrence Meyers, a judge who served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for more than 20 years.

A messy patchwork

Though thousands are serving life without parole for violent crimes such as homicide, courts in almost a dozen states have given hundreds of people that penalty for drug crimes.

Prosecutors have found that jurors are less squeamish about locking people up for the rest of their lives than about executing them. And life-without-parole trials cost thousands of dollars less than death penalty cases. They are shorter, involve fewer lawyers, allow limited appeals and often end in plea deals before trial.

Life without parole is an important option for prosecutors, said Joe Gonzales, the district attorney in San Antonio. While many families of victims expect the death penalty, for others “dealing with the tragedy of losing someone they love, knowing that the person who killed them is going to be in prison forever is enough.”

Half the people serving life without parole are locked up in just five states: California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Only Alaska doesn’t permit this punishment.

“Prosecutors have gone wild with life-without-parole sentences – but in particular counties and for particularly marginalized people,” said Brandon Garrett, a Duke University law professor who wrote a book on the decline of capital punishment. His study of North Carolina found that more than 60 percent of the prison population serving life without parole was Black. Only 30 percent was white.

The Texas Legislature authorized the use of life-without-parole sentences in 2005 as an alternative to the death penalty in murder cases. It is also used for some sexually violent offenses. The state has sentenced more than 1,200 people to die in prison; many convictions resulted from plea deals, so the defendants waived their right to appeal.

A birthday gone wrong

Shuranda Williams said she was raised by her grandmother in a south Dallas neighborhood where gunshots used to wake her up at night. Williams, whose family calls her Pinkie, worked at Subway and KFC while taking care of her four children, who are now adults.

She had a couple of minor run-ins with the criminal justice system. In 1995, when she was 18, she was caught with underwear a friend bought with a stolen credit card; she spent several months behind bars, according to court records. She stayed out of trouble until 2010, when she tried unsuccessfully to cash someone else’s unemployment check in Georgia. She received probation.

“I’ve had my ups and downs in life,” Williams said. The downs sometimes included drugs and alcohol, she said, especially when she was in abusive romantic relationships.

By 2019, she had found work loading medical supplies onto delivery trucks in Dallas.

Williams said her memory is foggy about what happened on Dec. 10, 2019, the eve of her 43rd birthday, but she said she knows she wasn’t involved in a murder. She remembers driving with her brother and another man to a Super 7 Inn. She bought drugs there from a man she knew named Anthony Burks, she said, and then left to go party.

In court records, police say video surveillance captured Williams knocking on Burks’ door, talking to him, then gesturing to her brother and the other man. They say she conferred with the men in her car before leaving. Within half an hour, law enforcement says, the men knocked on the door and shot Burks, 46, killing him in the course of a robbery.

Detectives said two men were spotted running from the motel; police offered a $5,000 reward for information.

Williams said she didn’t know about any plans for a robbery or shooting.

Eight days after Burks’ death, Williams and her brother were arrested outside a Popeyes restaurant in east Dallas. Police said they found a trace amount of cocaine in a plastic baggie in Williams’ pocket; she was charged with drug possession in addition to capital murder.

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