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Fifth Circuit Holds Texas Parole Revocation Witness Denial Violates Due Process

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has 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 (1972) when it revoked a parolee for a crime for which he had been acquitted while refusing to let him call several 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. Several months after his release, a woman claiming to be his daughter accused him of assaulting her. Williams said he was fishing with two friends, Samuel Oakley and Allen Nugent, 30 miles from the place of the alleged assault at the time it supposedly occurred. He also said the woman had demanded financial help from him 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 where the hearing took place. 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 writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in federal district court. The court dismissed the petition, and Williams appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that under Texas law the BPP could subpoena prisoners, which was conceded by the state. The appellate 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 his witnesses.

The Court of Appeals 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. The appellate court found that such statements were insufficient as substitutes for live testimony as they did not allow for the assessment of credibility.

The Fifth Circuit also rejected the state’s claim that prisoners’ testimony was “per se incredible.” Finally, the Court rejected the state’s argument that there was no evidence that the witnesses would have actually testified the same way as the letters they signed. That is the reason why live, sworn testimony was required. Further, the case hinged on witness credibility; thus the due process violations had a substantial and injurious effect, and Williams was entitled to relief in the form of a new revocation hearing.

The Fifth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded the case for further proceedings. Upon remand the district court provisionally granted the writ of habeas corpus, and ordered that Williams be released from custody if he did not receive a new parole revocation hearing within 180 days that allowed him to call the witnesses who were precluded from his original hearing. See: Williams v. Quarterman, 307 Fed.Appx. 790 (5th Cir. 2009) (unpublished).

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Related legal case

Williams v. Quarterman