(CN) - California must retry or release a sex offender who was convicted after a judge erroneously told jurors that he had pleaded guilty, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.
While Bryant Keith Williams was on trial in Los Angeles for false imprisonment and sexual penetration with a foreign object in 2006, the trial judge threw a wrench into proceedings by mistakenly saying that Williams had pleaded guilty to the charges just before the trial began.
Less than an hour into the alleged victim's testimony, the jury sent a note to the judge that said: "As a group we the jury feel we heard the judge state the defendant pleaded guilty before the trial. Is this true?"
The trial judge admitted the error, and sought twice to cure his mistake with the jury. Among other things, the judge had said: "If he had pleaded guilty, we wouldn't be having a trial."
One juror who admitted that she had thought Williams "was guilty throughout the entire trial" because of the judge's mistake had to be dismissed.
Williams' lawyer twice moved for a mistrial, but the judge found that he had righted the issue with two jury polls in which the jurors had remained silent after he asked them if they could remain impartial.
Wit the testimony of the alleged victim accounting primarily for the state's evidence, the jury found Williams guilty and he was sentenced to 50 years to life.
After state courts shot him down, Williams argued in a federal petition
that the judge's error destroyed his presumption of innocence.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford dismissed the habeas petition, but a divided three-judge appellate panel reversed
on Thursday, finding the jury poll insufficient to counteract the "devastating" error of the trial judge's misstatement.
"Williams was convicted on the basis of the victim's testimony, which the jury heard while under the impression that Williams had pled guilty - in other words, while under the impression that he was guilty," Judge John Noonan wrote for the majority. "It is, we find, impossible to say that the 'judgment was not substantially swayed by the [trial judge's] error.'" (Brackets in original)
"Where the judge assigns guilt, even inadvertently, he strips the jury of its fundamental role and subverts the requirement that the jury must confirm the truth of every accusation," Noonan added. "The constitutional error is manifest. It was not rendered harmless by the flawed curative instructions."
Williams' habeas petition should have been granted, the court found, ordering California to release Williams from custody "unless it initiates new trial proceedings within a reasonable period of time."
Writing in dissent, Judge Mary Murguia argued that the panel should have deferred to the ruling of the state appellate court, which she said had found that "Williams's state and federal constitutional rights were not violated."
"In my view, because no other jurors came forward, a fair-minded jurist could conclude that the trial court's measures were sufficient to cure its misstatement," she wrote.