On Friday, September 16, 2016, Associate Professor Shaakirrah R. Sanders presented at the Savannah Law Review American Legal Fictions Colloquium. Professor Sanders presented Age-Old Truths: Williams v. New York and the Legal Fiction Against Confrontation at Felony Sentencing, which she has begun to research for her upcoming book project. In Age-Old Truths, Professor Sanders explored the Williams rule that the Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause does not apply at criminal sentencing. Professor Sanders discussed how if scholars who disagree with Williams are correct, the possibility exists that some felony defendants were and continue to be punished based on unreliable (and possibly erroneous) evidence. Professor Sanders argues that Williams itself provides a cautionary tale on the dangerousness of denying defendants the ability to cross-examine sentencing evidence that is material to punishment. Williams involved the 1949 conviction of an 18-year-old disabled African-American male for the murder of a 15-year-old Caucasian girl (the only witness to the murder described the perpetrator as a white man). Even though the jury recommended a life sentence, the judge sentenced Mr. Williams to death based on uncross-examined information from detectives that Mr. Williams broke into over thirty homes, that Mr. Williams “possessed a morbid sexuality,” and that Mr. Williams was a “psychopathic liar whose personality [was] permeated with psychosexual habits of thought and conduct.” The governor of New York ultimately commuted Mr. Williams’ sentence to life imprisonment. In 1964, Mr. Williams successfully petitioned for habeas relief. Almost a decade later a civil jury awarded to Mr. Williams compensatory damages for malicious prosecution. That same jury found that law enforcement acted on no more than a mere suspicion in arresting Mr. Williams for burglary and coercing his confession for murder. Professor Sanders concluded by pondering whether the only "age-old" truth that Williams has to offer is that the U.S. criminal justice system was and continues to be plagued with racial bias and animus.
The full list of presenters included: Darren Bush (University of Houston Law Center); Thomas P. Crocker (University of South Carolina School of Law); Tessa R. Davis (University of South Carolina School of Law); J. Amy Dillard (University of Baltimore School of Law); David Fagundes (Professor of Law, University of Houston Law Center); Wade W. Herring II (HunterMaclean); Zachary Kramer (Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law); Hon. Raymond J. McKoski (The John Marshall Law School); Karen Petroksi (Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law); Marc Roark (Savannah Law School); Caprice L. Roberts (Savannah Law School); Shaakirrah R. Sanders (University of Idaho College of Law); Eric J. Segall (Georgia State University College of Law); Andrew Siegel (Seattle School of Law); Abbey Stemler (Kelley School of Business, Indiana University); Josh Stillman (Jones Day); Karen Woody (Kelley School of Business, Indiana University). Professor Garrett Epps, contributing editor for The Atlantic and Professor of Law at University of Baltimore School of Law, presented the Keynote Address.
A synopsis of the colloquium can be found below:
The law is enmeshed with fictions. The judiciary as truth seeker disdains perjury yet imports hypothetical realities to attain justice within strict legal frameworks. The legislature mandates meanings to common words that often approach the realm of fantasy. Assignment of fiction within the law has provoked robust academic attention and debate regarding its utility and propriety. Legal fictions have roots in Ancient Roman law in which praetors (magistrates) unable to abrogate laws could derogate laws through this means under the auspices of equitable principles. America advances legal fictions through the common law to soften rigid legal rules. And, today, our courts and legislatures continue to fashion new legal fictions—possibly theorized as each party’s attempts to usurp the other. Examples of legal fictions abound from constitutional interpretation to granting remedies by expanding right.