Volunteer attorneys from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy along with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project won a major victory for their client, John Francis Wille. On May 5, 2014, a state judge granted a joint motion filed by the district attorney and the Milbank/ACLU team, vacating Mr. Wille’s death sentence and immediately resentencing him to life imprisonment without parole. An evidentiary hearing proceeded as planned the next day, allowing Milbank and the ACLU to continue their fight to prove their client’s innocence.
Mr. Wille was charged with sexually assaulting and killing a woman in a parish near New Orleans on June 2, 1985. Represented by court-appointed defense attorney George Oubre, he received a death sentence at his trial in 1986. In 2007, Milbank volunteered to provide pro bono representation to Mr. Wille with the help of experienced capital defender Denny LeBoeuf and the ACLU Capital Punishment Project.
After years of investigation, the Milbank/ACLU team filed a petition for a new trial raising 21 claims that included ineffective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, and actual innocence. At the two-day evidentiary hearing in May 2014, Mr. Wille’s team presented new evidence and called key witnesses, including trial counsel Mr. Oubre, who described why he had been unable to deliver effective assistance to Mr. Wille. On the witness stand, Mr. Oubre testified that the 1986 trial was a “nightmare.” He explained that he was assigned to Mr. Wille’s case in order to complete a community service requirement as part of his sentence for a previous bank fraud conviction. Mr. Oubre revealed that he had no prior capital litigation experience. He primarily handled civil cases and was not a litigator, trying only three cases in his lifetime. He depended on his case investigator for direction, stating that the investigator “knew more than I did.” Mr. Oubre failed to interview a single prosecution witness, passed over key defense witnesses, and neglected to visit the crime scene. “I didn’t understand the need for it,” he said later. At trial Mr. Oubre experienced a nervous breakdown, falling onto the floor of the judge’s chamber in tears. “To say he was in over his head does an injustice to the phrase,” said Nick Trenticosta, one of Mr. Wille’s attorneys.
In addition to presenting evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel, Milbank and the ACLU also argued that their client was coerced into giving a false confession, which he later recanted. The defense team called Dr. William Rodriguez, a forensic anthropologist, to challenge the credibility of Mr. Wille’s confession. Using photographs and autopsy results, Dr. Rodriguez concluded that the timeline of events presented in Mr. Wille’s confession was “scientifically highly improbable.” The team of volunteer attorneys also introduced the results of recent DNA testing that cast strong doubt on their client’s involvement in the crime.
Milbank and the ACLU are currently awaiting a ruling from the 40th Judicial District Court concerning their request for a new trial, but Mr. Wille no longer faces the threat of the death penalty. “This is a major step. That burden has been lifted. At least he is no longer suffering on death row and subject to potential execution,” said Milbank volunteer attorney Tawfiq Rangwala.
The Project congratulates Milbank and the ACLU Capital Punishment Project on their impressive victory!
Interested in learning more about representing a death row prisoner? Visit our Volunteering page or contact the Project at 202-662-1738.