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Fifth Circuit Holds Texas Parole Revocation Witness Denial Violated Due Process

The Fifth Circuit court of appeals held that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) failed to comport with the due process requirements of Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 92 S.Ct. 2593, 33 L.Ed.2d 484 (1972), when it revoked a parolee for a crime he had been acquitted of while refusing to allow him to call several of his witnesses because they were in jail.

Michael Williams, a Texas state prisoner, was released on parole after serving 21 years of a 99-year sentence. A few months after his release, a woman claiming to be his daughter accused him of assaulting her. Williams claimed he was with Samuel Oakley and Allen Nugent fishing 30 miles away from the place of the alleged assault at the time it allegedly occurred. He also claimed that the woman had demanded financial help and fabricated the charges when he refused to support her.

Williams was acquitted of the criminal charges, but the BPP revoked his parole based on the alleged assault. During the revocation hearing, the hearing officer refused to allow Williams to call several of the witnesses he requested, including Oakley and Nugent, because they were incarcerated in a jail located in the same building that the hearing took place in. The hearing officer told Williams that he didn’t have the power to subpoena prisoners.

Williams filed an unsuccessful state habeas action challenging the revocation. He then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in federal district court. The district court dismissed the petition. Williams appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that under Texas law the BPP could subpoena prisoners. This was conceded by the state. The court also held that Morrissey requires an “opportunity to be heard in person and to present witness and documentary evidence” at a parole revocation hearing. Thus, Williams was entitled to call the witnesses.

The Fifth Circuit rejected the state’s contention that short letters submitted by Williams in support of his subpoena request which described the witnesses’ potential testimony were sufficient to put their testimony before the hearing officer. They were insufficient as substitutes for live testimony as they did not allow for the assessment of credibility. Court also rejected the claim that prisoners’ testimony was per se incredible. Finally, it rejected the state’s argument that there was no evidence that the witnesses would actually testify the same way as the letters they signed. This is the reason live, sworn testimony was required. 
 Further, the case hinged on witness credibility. Thus the due process violations had a substantial and injurious effect. Therefore, Williams was entitled to relief in the form of a new parole revocation hearing. The Fifth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court and returned it to the district court for further proceedings consistent with the unpublished opinion in this case. See: Williams v. Quarterman, 307 Fed.Appx. 790 (5th Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Williams v. Quarterman