Before jurors reach the yes or no question asking whether a former Hawaii soldier should be sentenced to death for his daughter’s murder, they must weigh a long list of reasons for and against giving him capital punishment.
Jurors deciding the fate of Naeem Williams are scheduled to begin the first full day of deliberations Thursday. They previously convicted him of murder in his 5-year-old daughter Talia’s 2005 beating death. Now they will embark on a process to determine whether he is put to death or spends the rest of his life in prison.
It’s a historic decision because this is the first death penalty case that has gone to trial in the history of Hawaii’s statehood. Hawaii’s territorial government abolished the death penalty in 1957, before the islands became a state. Because the crimes happened in military housing, Williams was tried in the federal justice system, which makes the death penalty available even in states that don’t have capital punishment.
According to 35 pages of jury instructions, the jury must determine which of seven aggravating factors the prosecution proved that justify death. During proceedings to determine if Williams is eligible for the death penalty, the jury found the prosecution proved two other aggravating factors: The killing was especially heinous that involved torture of physical abuse and that Talia was particularly vulnerable because of her youth.
The jury must agree unanimously that each of the aggravating factors were proven beyond a reasonable doubt for them to be used to consider his sentence. The factors include:
— Williams delayed seeking medical attention for Talia.
— He retained custody of Talia even though he knew there were others who could care for her without abuse.
— Talia was also vulnerable because of her special needs, including developmental delays and asthma.
Williams testified during the trial that he regularly beat Talia to discipline her for bathroom accidents. He later read a statement to jurors apologizing for killing her and asking them to let him live so that he can be a better father to his two other children.
The jury must also consider a list of 149 mitigating factors the defense offered as reasons to spare his life. The standard for considering these factors is lower and doesn’t require a unanimous vote. They are wide-ranging and include:
— Williams was raised in a system of corporal punishment.
— He served overseas in the Army.
— He has an intellectual disability.
— The girl’s stepmother influenced him to violently abuse Talia.
The jury’s next step will be to weigh the factors.
“You should not simply count the number of factors, but consider the particular sentence of each, which may be given different weight or value by different jurors,” their instructions state. “For example, you may find that one mitigating factor outweighs all aggravating factors combined, or that the aggravating factors proved do not, standing alone, justify imposition of a sentence of death.”
Defense attorney Michael Burt in his closing statement last week beseeched jurors to find that mitigating factor No. 149 outweighs everything else: “Under all the facts and circumstances, the jury wishes to show mercy.”