Huffpost Crime

Hawaii's First Death Penalty Case Reaches Verdict

Posted: Updated:

HONOLULU (AP) — A former soldier convicted of killing his 5-year-old daughter will spend the rest of his life behind bars after a federal jury announced Friday it failed to agree on his sentence in the first death penalty trial in Hawaii since it became a state.

Jurors deliberated for about seven days before deciding they were deadlocked on Naeem Williams' sentence. That means U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright will give Williams life in prison without the possibility of release.

Jurors were aware that would happen if they couldn't agree. One of them, Earlanne Leslie of Hilo, said after the hearing that the panel was 8-4 in favor of the death penalty.

"I voted for death — I'm a little disappointed," another juror, Clarence Kaona, told The Associated Press. "I feel like we let the girl down."

Seabright set an Oct. 14 hearing to formally sentence Williams.

Court staff, reporters and other observers packed the courtroom for Friday's hearing. Williams showed no reaction when the jury's decision was read. He was bracing for the death penalty, his attorney John Philipsborn said.

"Both of us were relieved," Philipsborn said. "I think he was very grateful for the outcome."

After the hearing, two prosecutors — Assistant U.S. Attorney Darren Ching, who handled the case, and U.S. Attorney for Hawaii Florence Nakakuni — hugged outside the courtroom. Ching got a kiss from his wife.

"We put forth the best case we had, and we respect the verdict," said Steve Mellin, trial attorney with the Justice Department's capital case section.

The jury in April convicted Williams of murder in his daughter Talia's 2005 beating death.

Hawaii's territorial government abolished capital punishment in 1957. But Talia was killed on military property so Williams was tried in the federal system, which allows the death penalty.

Talia's mother, Tarshia Williams, told the AP by phone she was glad her daughter got justice.

"Even though they're deadlocked, I still feel that I've got some kind of closure that the trial is finally over, because I had to wait nine long years, and that was hard," she said.

She said she believes the government could have done more to help her daughter since military police had shown up at the house for various domestic incidents. Williams has a lawsuit pending against the U.S. government in the case, which was put on hold pending the criminal trial. The government has denied that officials failed to protect Talia from the abuse that caused her death.

Williams and Talia's stepmother, Delilah Williams, testified that they beat the girl almost daily during the seven months she lived with them in Hawaii.

During the sentencing phase, Naeem Williams' family, including his 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, told jurors they love him and that his life has value. Naeem Williams read a statement to jurors apologizing for killing Talia and asking them to let him live.

He said the beatings were discipline for the child's bowel- and bladder-control issues. He also blamed them on his frustrations with his marriage.

Delilah Williams testified against her husband as part of a deal with prosecutors for a 20-year sentence. She provided disturbing details of abuse that included withholding food for days at a time and beating the child while she was duct-taped to a bed.

Prosecutors say Talia died July 16, 2005, after her father dealt a blow so hard it left knuckle imprints on her chest.

Kaona said the duct-taped beatings were key to his decision to vote for the death sentence.

"I have a 4 ½ year old granddaughter, and for the rest of my life in her I'm going to see the girl," he said. "I'll never get those autopsy pictures out of my mind."

Seabright scheduled Delilah Williams' sentencing for July 8. She didn't want her husband to get the death penalty, said her federal public defender, Alexander Silvert. "I spoke to her today, and she was very relieved," he said.

The Bureau of Prisons will determine where Naeem Williams serves his life sentence, based on factors including his security level and medical needs.

Hawaii's last recorded execution was in 1944.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said he was not surprised by the jury's decision.

"It is difficult to obtain a death penalty in a state such as Hawaii where the people have not voted for the death penalty on a state level," Dieter said. "Prosecutors have found this in New York, in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and in many other states where they have sought the death penalty but rarely if ever get it."

___

Jennifer Sinco Kelleher can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JenHapa. Associated Press writers Cathy Bussewitz and Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.

On Thursday afternoon, the jury sent a note to the judge saying they reached a verdict but asked to delay reading it until Friday morning because some jurors felt emotionally drained.

U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright brought the jury's forewoman into the courtroom and explained that he would accept the verdict Thursday, seal it in an envelope and excuse the jury for the day. He said he wouldn't look at it until the morning, when he'll make sure the verdict form is filled out properly, and then it will be read.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers objected to delaying the reading. They declined to comment outside of court on how the verdict was being handled.

Williams' death penalty trial is the first in the history of Hawaii's statehood.

In April, the same 12 jurors found Williams guilty of capital murder in his daughter Talia's 2005 beating death. He said he beat the child often to discipline her for bathroom accidents.

Hawaii's territorial government abolished capital punishment in 1957. But because his crimes took place in military housing, Williams was tried in the federal justice system, which allows the death penalty.

Seabright is expected to impose the sentence that the jury agreed upon. A decision to sentence him to either death or life in prison must be unanimous, but they also have the option of saying they can't agree, which would mean Williams will be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

The jury ended deliberations after about seven full days of considering Williams' sentence. They typically deliberated from about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. They've had every Monday off and had some breaks spanning several days because of court scheduling issues.

The defense filed a motion earlier this week arguing for a mistrial because of the length of time jurors were taking to reach a decision. Seabright declined that motion.

Williams' defense team argued factors such as his two other children, his low IQ, and physical abuse he suffered from his stepfather were reasons to spare his life.

The prosecution said the killing was heinous enough to warrant the death penalty because of circumstances including Talia's age and vulnerability.

Williams and Talia's stepmother, Delilah Williams, testified during the guilt phase of the trial that they beat the girl almost daily with belts and their hands during the seven months she lived with them in Hawaii.

During proceedings leading up to the sentencing deliberations, Williams' family, including his 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, testified that they love him and that his life has value. Williams read a statement to jurors apologizing for killing Talia and asking them to let him live.