Volunteer attorneys at Sidley Austin LLP won a major victory for their client William Ziegler on November 2, 2012, when an Alabama circuit judge ruled that Mr. Ziegler was denied his constitutional rights at trial and on appeal, granted post-conviction relief, and ordered a new trial.
In a 218-page opinion, Judge Sarah Stewart wrote that Mr. Ziegler was denied even the most basic defense by his "woefully inadequate" court-appointed lawyers. Judge Stewart dedicated the first 100 pages of her opinion to enumerating the ways in which defense counsel's performance was deficient and highly prejudicial to Mr. Ziegler, primarily for failing to challenge the State's flawed theory of the case. The State's case against Mr. Ziegler relied on the premise that Mr. Ziegler killed the victim in the woods around midnight on February 19, 2000. This theory was based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, William Randall, who was also charged in the killing along with three other individuals. Not only did defense counsel concede the accuracy of this theory during trial, they also failed to conduct even a basic investigation into the supporting evidence. Sidley's extensive post-conviction investigation revealed, however, that the State's entire theory of the case, including the testimony of the eyewitness, was directly contradicted by forensic evidence.
Citing repeatedly to the ABA Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases ("ABA Guidelines"), the court found that from the "pre-trial period through to his sentencing, trial counsel’s representation of Ziegler fell far short of the prevailing norms  governing the representation of capital defendants." Judge Stewart was highly critical of counsel’s decision to delegate investigation of the entire case to an investigator who had no prior experience with murder cases and no training or experience with forensic investigation or analysis. Although trial counsel approximated that the investigation would take 300 hours in their motion for funds to hire the investigator, Sidley's attorneys produced billing records that showed that the investigator only spent 35 hours working on the case. The investigator's failures were compounded by the actions of one of the defense attorneys, who literally threw away forensic evidence, including a knife and blood-stained clothing that belonged to Mr. Randall. The attorney later testified in defense of his actions that he did not think the jury would care about such evidence.
During the post-conviction hearing, the Sidley team called numerous witnesses, including multiple forensic experts and the state medical examiner, who testified that the victim was not killed in the woods but rather was killed elsewhere and transported there after his death, undermining the State's entire theory of the case and squarely contradicting Mr. Randall's "eyewitness" testimony. These experts all said that they would have been available to testify at Mr. Ziegler's trial had they been approached by defense counsel. Far from seeking expert assistance, however, defense counsel failed to even consider whether expert testimony might be useful, contrary to at least four separate provisions of the ABA Guidelines.
The court noted a number of other prejudicial failures of defense counsel, including failure to consult with a police procedures expert, which would have revealed evidence of flawed police investigation; failure to investigate evidence that implicated the other defendants, including Mr. Randall; failure to obtain available impeachment evidence against the State's key witnesses; failure to conduct an effective voir dire, including failure to object to the State's pattern of striking African-American jurors in violation of Batson v. Kentucky; failure to challenge the police interrogation of Mr. Ziegler, which was done in violation of the department's own procedures; and failure to investigate and present mitigation evidence at the penalty phase of the case.
In addition to the widespread violations of Mr. Ziegler's right to the effective assistance of counsel, Sidley attorneys also proved that the State withheld significant exculpatory evidence from the defense in violation of Brady v. Maryland. Aside from Mr. Randall's testimony, the other key piece of evidence against Mr. Ziegler came from a witness who said she saw Mr. Ziegler threaten the victim prior to his death. During post-conviction proceedings, this witness recanted her testimony. The Sidley team uncovered transcripts of police interviews with the witness, which made it clear that she only knew the person she saw make the threat as "Will," a name shared by Mr. Randall and Mr. Ziegler. Further, when the police showed her a picture of Mr. Ziegler, she said that he was not the person she saw. Under repeated police pressure, however, she eventually agreed to implicate Mr. Ziegler at trial. The court found that the State also improperly withheld evidence that the victim was transported in a car belonging to another one of the original defendants in the case, again undermining the State's theory and implicating someone other than Mr. Ziegler in the killing.
Judge Stewart concluded her opinion by saying that Mr. Ziegler's constitutional rights had been violated in a number of ways, including the "myriad failures" of defense counsel and prosecutorial misconduct. She held that "[u]nder any analysis, this Court cannot say that Ziegler received a fair trial and, accordingly, under our constitutional system and pursuant to [Alabama rules of procedure], he is entitled to a new trial." The State has indicated that it will appeal the decision.
The Project congratulates Sidley Austin for this remarkable victory that vividly demonstrates how the criminal justice system fails to ensure basic constitutional rights in some of the most serious of cases. Sidley received the Project's 2006 Exceptional Service Award in recognition of the firm's extraordinary dedication to capital prisoners in Alabama, a commitment which the firm continues to uphold through its work on behalf of clients like Mr. Ziegler.