A Honolulu courtroom is set to become the scene of a death penalty trial even though Hawaii abolished capital punishment in 1957.
Opening statements are scheduled for Tuesday in the trial of a former Hawaii-based Army soldier accused of beating his 5-year-old daughter to death in 2005. But because the crime allegedly took place on military property, Naeem Williams is being tried in federal court — a system that does have the death penalty.
It’s rare for the government to seek the death penalty in a state that doesn’t allow it. Only seven of 59 inmates currently on federal death row are from states that didn’t have the death penalty at the time the sentence was imposed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
While the Williams case hasn’t received much publicity, the death penalty circumstance gives it something in common with a more high profile case for federal prosecutors: the Boston Marathon bombing.
"You have a population in Massachusetts and in the city where they’re not used to having the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, the Death Penalty Information Center’s executive director. "It just makes it a little harder to get these kinds of death sentences."
But Kenneth Lawson, associate director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, noted that someone who considers the death penalty immoral can be disqualified from serving on the jury.
"How do you get a jury of all of your peers when the only ones who can sit on there are those who believe in capital punishment?" he said.
Attorneys in the Williams case began questioning prospective jurors in January.
Talia Emoni Williams died in July 2005 after she was brought to a hospital unresponsive, vomiting and covered in bruises. A criminal complaint by federal investigators accuses her then-25-year-old father of beating the child to discipline her for urinating on herself. Federal investigators wrote that military law enforcement agents found blood splatters in the walls of the family’s home at Wheeler Army Airfield from Talia being whipped with Williams’ belt.
Delilah Williams, Talia’s stepmother, was also charged with murder but pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors. She’s expected to be sentenced to 20 years in prison after she testifies against Williams at his trial, said her federal public defender, Alexander Silvert.
The Army agreed the case should be prosecuted in the civilian justice system so that the father and stepmother could appear in the same court.
"I am shocked that this case has not received more attention from the public and more attention from those groups in Hawaii that are anti-death penalty," Silvert said. "No one’s in protest. To me, the lack of interest in the community is troubling."
Talia’s biological mother, Tarshia Williams, is expected to testify for the prosecution, her attorneys said. She filed a civil lawsuit against the government over Talia’s death. It has been put on hold until after the criminal trial. The mother’s lawsuit claims the military didn’t report to the proper authorities that Talia’s father and stepmother "abused and tortured" her throughout the seven months she lived in Hawaii before she died.
Alberto Gonzales, the U.S. attorney general during President George W. Bush’s administration, made the decision to seek the death penalty against Naeem Williams.
"Under Bush’s administration, the philosophy was the federal death penalty should be spread out among all the states," Dieter said.
Legal observers say it’s surprising that the current government continues to seek the death penalty against Williams. "It’s disappointing the federal government is choosing to move forward with a death penalty case in a state that so clearly and constantly has rejected that as a form of punishment," said Rick Sing, president of the Hawaii Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The last time the federal death penalty was approved for a Hawaii case was against Richard "China" Chong. But before he went to trial in 2000, he agreed to plead guilty to a 1997 drug-related murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He died of an apparent suicide about three months later.
Hawaii’s history with capital punishment goes back long before statehood. There were 49 executions dating in Hawaii dating to 1856, with the last one recorded in 1944, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The final execution of Ardiano Domingo — a Filipino who was hanged for killing a woman with scissors in a Kauai pineapple field — helped prompt Hawaii’s territorial lawmakers to abolish the death penalty in the state, said Williamson Chang, a University of Hawaii law school professor who teaches a course on the history of law in Hawaii.
Chang said before the law changed, Hawaii disproportionally executed people of color, mostly Filipinos, Japanese and Native Hawaiians.
Because of that history, Chang said he believes Hawaii jurors will struggle with the Williams case.
"We’re used to a society which does not put people to death," he said. "It’s a slap in the face to the values of Hawaii."