This morning the Washington State Court of Appeals heard oral arguments for Larry and Carri Williams, who are seeking to overturn their convictions for the death of their adopted Ethiopian daughter, Hana Alemu. Many thanks to those who were able to attend the 40 minute hearing: there were about 25 people there for Hana, several from the Ethiopian Community Center as well as others who have held Hana in their hearts. It was a great showing of support for Hana. The courtroom does not have space for many more people than were there sitting behind the prosecuting attorney today.
Neither Larry nor Carri were in the courtroom. Both are in jail in Washington state, and this was a strictly legal process. It will likely be weeks before we hear the decision of the court.
As always, I must say that I am not a lawyer, so am writing about this with a non-legal background. In October 2013, Carri Williams was found guilty of homicide by abuse of Hana; Larry Williams was found guilty of manslaughter of Hana. Each filed appeals for their convictions in the death of Hana. Information about their sentencing is available here.
Three appeals court judges today heard the oral arguments by attorneys first for Carri Williams’ case, then for Larry. The attorneys for Larry and Carri had submitted significant legal documents for the appeal, which of course the judges had read prior to today’s hearing. The entire hearing was under an hour. This was not a re-trying of the case–it was a legal process to see if errors had been made at the 2013 trial which were signficant enough to reverse the convictions.
The main argument offered by the attorney from the Washington State Appellate Project on Carri Williams’ behalf involved the failure of the original trial judge to grant a mistrial after Hana’s Ethiopian uncle essentially disappeared, failing to return to Ethiopia. The prosecution had brought the uncle to the US, and he had testified (through translators) that he had proof in a family Bible about Hana’s age. Hana’s age mattered for the homicide by abuse charge; Hana had to be under 16 years old for Carri to be charged for that crime. There was controversy about Hana’s actual age, and dental and other experts were witnesses at the trial. The disappearance of the uncle was problematic. The trial judge struck all of the uncle’s testimony, telling the jurors to ignore it. The lawyer for Carri argued today that the mistrial should have been granted.
The attorney from the Skagit Country Prosecutor’s Office (representing the state on half of Hana) argued that the decision to strike the uncle’s testimony was appropriate. One of the Appeals Court judges today asked about the torture definition, as the standard of “torture” was a necessary element for the homicide by abuse charge. The attorney explained that one act in itself (food deprivation, outside shower, or locking in closet) might not have reached the level of torture, but the cumulative effect over time did, and so experts were consulted during the trial about the nature of torture.
Again, no one was arguing about the factual horrific events that led to Hana’s death. The appeals process is focused on whether proper legal procedure was followed in the 2013 trial. Hence, there were discussions today about whether the dental witness should have testified for a longer time, whether the instructions to the jury were adequate, and whether the timing of witness lists was correct.
The hearing then turned to Larry Williams’ appeal. Larry was not home the night Hana died, but had been aware and involved in the various disciplinary techniques by Carri Williams. There was discussion today of whether, from a legal perspective, Larry was an “accomplice” or a “principal” in the events that led to Hana’s death. The attorney representing Larry acknowledged that Larry “doesn’t have entirely clean hands” in the case, but that doesn’t make him an accomplice in Hana’s death that night. In response, the prosecutor argued that Larry breached his duty as a parent by denying Hana basic necessities of life, and participated in deprivation to Hana that was reckless. The jury at the trial believed Larry was a participant; one legal question in this appeal is whether both Larry and Carri were principals in Hana’s death, or whether Larry was an accomplice.
Neither Larry nor Carri has appealed their convictions of assault of a child, which involved their Ethiopian adopted son Immanuel. Today’s hearing was solely about the convictions for Hana’s death.
The judges could take weeks or months to issue a decision. If the convictions are not overturned, the Williamses can file more appeals.
Hana, we are standing with you.