DALLAS — Shuranda Williams spent more than a year in the county jail here, waiting to talk to someone about fighting the murder charge she faces. The police have said she was involved in the 2019 killing of a suspected drug dealer; she insists she wasn’t.
If she’s convicted of capital murder, Williams, 44, faces a minimum sentence of life in prison without parole. She wanted a lawyer to help her make her case and to argue for her release from jail, but she couldn’t afford to hire one.
If prosecutors had announced they were seeking the death penalty, Williams would have been guaranteed a pair of lawyers whose expertise in capital cases has been vetted by a court-appointed screening committee. The government would have paid for an investigator and a mental health expert to examine her case. And under national legal guidelines, her lawyers would have had a special obligation to aggressively assert every possible argument to defend her.
But because Williams could face life without parole — a sentence that also means she would die behind bars — she didn’t get any of that.
The lawyer a judge appointed to defend her, George Ashford III, is not on the approved list for death penalty cases. He has not hired an investigator or mental health expert for her. He visited Williams once, wrote her one letter, and has not responded to her phone calls, she told judges. When she wrote to them for help, they didn’t respond — or sent her back to Ashford.
“I explained to him what happened that night, and I haven't talked to him since,” Williams said in a phone call from jail. She was frustrated that Ashford hadn’t pursued a motion to reduce her $525,000 bond. “At least if I got out, I could work and pay for a decent lawyer,” she said.
Ashford said there was little he could do given the pandemic and the circumstances of the crime. After 35 years as a criminal defense lawyer handling many felonies, Ashford said, “Realistically I can pretty much read a police report and determine what the likely or average outcome for that case is going to be.”
Life-without-parole sentences are steadily replacing the death penalty across the United States. Almost 56,000 people nationwide are now serving sentences that will keep them locked up until they die, an increase of 66% since 2003, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for shorter prison terms.
By comparison, only 2,500 people nationally are on death row according to the Death Penalty Information Center; the number of new death sentences dwindled to 18 last year, as prosecutors increasingly seek life instead. Executions are less popular with Americans than they used to be, according to Gallup, and are astronomically expensive to taxpayers. In Dallas, the district attorney’s office says it asks for capital punishment only for egregious crimes where defendants present a continuing threat to society.
But as life without parole displaces capital punishment, the country’s patchwork system of public defense hasn’t kept up. Only 11 states report having minimum qualifications for lawyers who represent impoverished people facing a lifetime behind bars, according to the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center. In Texas, there’s a continuing dispute over whether the standards for death penalty defense apply if prosecutors seek life without parole instead.
Most states have no rules, The Marshall Project and The Dallas Morning News found. Someone just out of law school could handle a life-without-parole case in Illinois or Nebraska. In California, where a third of the prison population is serving some form of life sentence, minimum qualifications apply only in death penalty cases; the state hasn’t executed anyone since 2006.
Other states have minimal standards. South Carolina requires just three years of experience in criminal law; Arkansas specifies that lawyers should have handled at least one homicide trial.
When it comes to life without parole, “the idea that you would treat these cases like you would treat other felonies is somewhat incomprehensible to me,” said Pamela Metzger, the director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “The sentencing stakes are so high and often irreversible.” People facing life have far fewer chances to appeal than those facing capital punishment, and their cases draw far less scrutiny, she said.
In Michigan, where 4,000 people are serving life without parole, the indigent defense commission adopted new standards that would require lawyers who handle such cases to have at least five years of significant experience, including at least seven felony jury trials. But the standards have yet to be approved by other state regulators.
Many legal experts say that people facing life without parole should receive the same level of representation as those facing the death penalty.
“Life without parole is just another form of the death penalty, just a slower version of it,” said Lawrence Meyers, a judge who served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for more than 20 years.
A MESSY PATCHWORK
Though thousands are serving life without parole for violent crimes such as homicide, courts in almost a dozen states have given hundreds of people that penalty for drug crimes.
Prosecutors have found that jurors are less squeamish about locking people up for the rest of their lives than about executing them. And life-without-parole trials cost thousands of dollars less than death penalty cases. They are shorter, involve fewer lawyers, allow limited appeals and often end in plea deals before trial.
Life without parole is an important option for prosecutors, said Joe Gonzales, the district attorney in San Antonio. While many families of victims expect the death penalty, for others “dealing with the tragedy of losing someone they love, knowing that the person who killed them is going to be in prison forever is enough.”
Half the people serving life without parole are locked up in just five states: California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Only Alaska doesn’t permit this punishment.
“Prosecutors have gone wild with life-without-parole sentences – but in particular counties and for particular marginalized people,” said Brandon Garrett, a Duke University law professor who wrote a book on the decline of capital punishment. His study of North Carolina found that more than 60% of the prison population serving life without parole was Black. Only 30% was White.
The Texas Legislature authorized the use of life-without-parole sentences in 2005 as an alternative to the death penalty in murder cases. It is also used for some sexually violent offenses. The state has sentenced more than 1,200 people to die in prison; many convictions resulted from plea deals, so the defendants waived their right to appeal.
A BIRTHDAY GONE WRONG
Shuranda Williams said she was raised by her grandmother in a south Dallas neighborhood where gunshots used to wake her up at night. Williams, whose family calls her Pinkie, worked at Subway and KFC while taking care of her four children, who are now adults.
She had a couple of minor run-ins with the criminal justice system. In 1995, when she was 18, she was caught with underwear a friend bought with a stolen credit card; she spent several months behind bars, according to court records. She stayed out of trouble until 2010, when she tried unsuccessfully to cash someone else’s unemployment check in Georgia. She received probation.
“I’ve had my ups and downs in life,” Williams said. The downs sometimes included drugs and alcohol, she said, especially when she was in abusive romantic relationships.
By 2019, she had found work loading medical supplies onto delivery trucks in Dallas.
Williams said her memory is foggy about what happened on Dec. 10, 2019, the eve of her 43rd birthday, but she knows she wasn’t involved in a murder. She remembers driving with her brother and another man to a Super 7 Inn. She bought drugs there from a man she knew named Anthony Burks, she said, and then left to go party.
In court records, police say video surveillance captured Williams knocking on Burks’ door, talking to him, then gesturing to her brother and the other man. They say she conferred with the men in her car before leaving. Within half an hour, law enforcement says, the men knocked on the door and shot Burks, 46, killing him in the course of a robbery.
Detectives said two men were spotted running from the motel; police offered a $5,000 reward for information.
Williams said she didn’t know about any plans for a robbery or shooting.
Eight days after Burks’ death, Williams and her brother were arrested outside a Popeyes restaurant in east Dallas. Police said they found a trace amount of cocaine in a plastic baggie in Williams’ pocket; she was charged with drug possession in addition to capital murder.
Her brother, Donald Williams Jr., was also arrested on capital murder charges and remains in the Dallas County jail, held without bond because of a criminal case in another state. His lawyer, Paul Johnson, who is on the approved list for death penalty defense, did not comment on behalf of his client.
The unnamed man police said was involved in killing Burks? He’s never been identified or charged.
A LEGAL QUAGMIRE?
In 1984, the Supreme Court decided that lawyers defending people accused of crimes must be proficient. But it didn’t set standards, just allowed people to challenge their convictions by showing that their lawyers didn’t demonstrate basic competence — and that this poor performance affected the outcome. It is a high bar.
Defense lawyers began trying to develop minimum standards. In 2003, the American Bar Association updated its guidelines for what lawyers should do for clients who face death sentences. Among other things, the guidelines say these lawyers should have extensive criminal trial experience and knowledge of death penalty case law and should hire investigators and mental health experts.
Some state legislatures and courts have adopted these standards, including Texas. But experts say enforcement is a problem. And in almost every state, the standards don’t apply to life-without-parole cases.
The issue is further complicated by the quagmire of indigent defense. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees people accused of serious crimes the right to a lawyer — but didn’t specify how that would work. States have struggled with how to find, pay and evaluate lawyers for the poor. Sometimes they hire public defenders, who are employed by local governments. Sometimes they let judges assign private lawyers, who are paid with taxpayer funds. Many counties use a combination of systems.
Across the country, the result has been some lawyers who are overburdened, underpaid and occasionally incompetent. Some of these lawyers handle more than 1,000 felony cases a year, missing crucial filing deadlines or letting clients with mental illness languish in jail. It’s rare for an appeal of a life sentence to get a thorough reassessment: It took more than 43 years for courts to review the case of a Kansas City man sentenced to die in prison for a capital murder that prosecutors now say he did not commit.
In Texas, the state commission that oversees public defense says all people charged with capital murder — as Williams was — should get lawyers approved to handle capital punishment cases, in part because prosecutors don’t always announce right away if they will seek the death penalty. The American Bar Association and State Bar of Texas guidelines say the same.
The commission also says that under a law passed in 2019, defendants in Dallas and other places where public defenders are available should receive them, not private lawyers, in capital murder cases. But while the commission can threaten to withhold funding from courts, it doesn’t have the authority to control the behavior of individual judges.
Since 2014, courts in Dallas have appointed private lawyers not on the death-penalty approved list to capital murder cases at least 72 times, or roughly 20 percent of the time, The Marshall Project and The Dallas Morning News found. The judges we contacted did not answer questions about this practice. But in court filings, Dallas officials have argued that under state criminal law they don’t have to appoint lawyers from the approved list for capital murder cases — unless prosecutors say they are seeking the death penalty.
Some Dallas judges had been using a checklist form that stated that they had “good cause” to appoint preferred lawyers. Earlier this year, the Indigent Defense Commission said this system was “inadequate, misleading” and did not follow the law. The commission says that in April the county submitted a revised plan in which judges agreed to spell out their reasoning.
DEFENDING A RECORD
Judge Tracy Holmes used the checklist in December 2019 to appoint Ashford to represent Shuranda Williams. She marked that “the lawyer has the required experience,” “the Court is familiar with the lawyer’s work ethic and the facts of the case,” and that he would support the “special needs of the defendant.” He did not meet the fourth item on the list: being on the approved list for capital murder cases.
In response to an email describing Williams’ case and Dallas courts’ appointment practices, Holmes said: “I do not necessarily agree with all the facts and findings you list.” She said she couldn’t comment on cases pending in her court.
Ashford says he has an excellent reputation in all parts of the criminal courthouse and has handled many serious felony cases, but doesn’t want to be on the capital murder list. “I choose not to do death penalty cases — because they are time-consuming, and kind of eat up your practice,” he said.
But he said the judges who appoint him to life-without-parole cases are confident in his skills defending serious felony charges: “Frankly, I’m pretty damn good.”
In the 12 months leading up to August 2019, state data shows that Ashford was paid at least $110,930 from taxpayers for handling more than 130 cases, mostly felonies.
In at least two cases since 2014, Ashford’s impoverished clients were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole. One has appealed, alleging he received ineffective assistance and Ashford wasn’t qualified to represent him; the appeal is pending.
Ashford says he has a successful record in these types of cases.
“Claims of ineffective assistance are par for the course on capital cases because of their very nature,” Ashford wrote in a recent email. “In the past, the appellate courts have always decided the issue based on the lawyer’s actual performance, not any rule” about qualifications.
‘SOMEBODY FIGHTING FOR YOU’
Williams said she met with Ashford for the only time on Christmas Eve in 2019 in the county jail. He started the process of filing a motion to get her released in early 2020, but said he stopped because she didn’t give him accurate information. He also said he didn’t hire an investigator to gather additional facts, including potentially identifying the unknown man involved in the shooting, because he didn’t believe it would help her.
“My client has to tell me the truth, but she basically told me a very big lie,” he said, declining to provide details. (Williams said she doesn’t know what he is talking about.)
Williams wrote at least a dozen letters to Judge Holmes from jail, asking why she’d never been able to go to a courtroom and asking the judge to reduce her bond; her court date had been postponed 14 times.
She said she last heard from Ashford in May 2020, when he mailed her a letter saying he was reviewing evidence about the cases he was assigned to but judges weren’t approving all COVID-19 motions to reduce or eliminate bond. “Each case is judged on a case by case basis,” Ashford wrote.
The Dallas County district clerk’s office said records showed at least 19 capital murder defendants were released in the first half of 2020 on personal recognizance bonds or electronic monitoring; releases continued later in the year.
Ashford said he stands by his letter.
The day after The Marshall Project and The Dallas Morning News sent Holmes an email about Williams’ case seeking comment, the judge appointed Williams a new lawyer: Phillip Hayes.
Hayes is on the list of experienced lawyers appointed for death penalty cases. He declined to comment, saying he needed more time to review Williams’ case.
A few days later, the judge held a hearing and asked Williams if she wanted to keep Ashford as her lawyer.
“I haven’t spoken with him since Dec. 24, 2019,” she told the judge.
"OK, well, that's not what he represented to me, but I'll take your word for it," Holmes said. Ashford was not in the courtroom.
At the hearing, Hayes asked for additional time to investigate the evidence and speak with Williams’ family to advocate for her release at a future bond hearing. In less than two minutes, Williams was headed back to jail.
“Everybody was so excited for me because they said he is a great lawyer,” Williams said of the reaction at the jail. “They were saying ‘Now you have somebody fighting for you!’”
Additional reporting was contributed by Weihua Li, Krista Torralva and Ariana Giorgi.