Louisiana police and the likely killers may have framed Corey Williams for murder.

How Police, Prosecutors, and the Likely Killers May Have Framed a Man for Murder

How Police, Prosecutors, and the Likely Killers May Have Framed a Man for Murder

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Dec. 22 2015 5:45 AM

How to Frame a Man for Murder

Prosecutors and police “don’t think his life matters.”

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Corey Williams is serving a life sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo courtesy of the Shreveport Police Department/Flickr.

Corey Williams was hiding under a sheet on the couch in his grandmother’s house when detectives arrived to bring him to the station. Williams, who was then just 16, is intellectually disabled: He suffered from pica as a child, compulsively eating dirt and lead paint chips, leading to a severe case of lead poisoning. Williams also urinated on himself as a teenager and engaged in hand-mouthing—both common among people with development disorders. He has an IQ of 68 and was described by one judge as lacking the “ability to engage in the world around him.” So it was a surprise to Williams’ family when investigators questioned him about his participation in a murder.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers the law and LGBTQ issues.

The murder in question occurred in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1998, when Jarvis Griffin was shot and robbed while delivering pizza. Four men were present: Williams; Gabriel Logan; his brother, Nathan Logan; and Chris Moore, known by the nickname “Rapist.” Moore and Nathan are older than Williams, and they, as well as Gabriel, are cognitively unimpaired. Griffin’s blood was found on Gabriel’s sweatshirt. Nathan’s fingerprints were found on the murder weapon, which he himself brought to the police. Witnesses say Gabriel, not Williams, robbed Griffin, and held an object that looked like a gun. And the three other men split the proceeds of the robbery—and the pizza—among themselves and a friend. Williams never saw a penny of it. It’s not even clear he fully understood what was happening that night: Witnesses say he fled the scene in confused terror.

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But it was Williams who was charged with first-degree murder, Williams who was named by the others as the man who pulled the trigger, Williams whom the police singled out as the killer, Williams whom prosecutors sent to death row. (His sentence was later converted to life without parole in light of his obvious mental deficiency, over the vigorous protests of prosecutors.) Four men were present at the scene of the crime that night in 1998. Three of them were implicated by evidence and eyewitnesses. One of them wasn’t. Yet it is the fourth man, Williams, who is serving life in prison for murder. (Gabriel, who was also 16 years old at the time, is serving life in prison for second-degree murder.)

Why did Corey Williams end up imprisoned for a crime he almost certainly did not commit while Nathan and Moore remain free? All evidence pointed to the other three men as the perpetrators—yet Williams confessed to the murder, and the other men’s detailed testimonies corroborated his confession. Why would Williams confess to a murder he didn’t perpetrate? And if his confession was false, how could the other men’s testimony so accurately corroborate it?

The solution to this puzzle is both simple and outrageous—so outrageous that the state concealed it for more than 15 years. That’s how long prosecutors refused to release transcripts of interrogations conducted the night of the murder. It’s easy to see why they stalled. These transcripts, finally obtained by Williams’ defense this year, explain the central mystery of the case. Williams didn’t commit the crime; his testimony was coerced. The other men didn’t corroborate his confession; they refuted it. But when detectives presented them with Williams’ false confession, they quickly molded their story to fit with it. The prosecutor who sent Williams to death row—then fought to keep him there despite his intellectual disability—was aware of all this. He didn’t report it or inform the defense. Instead, he kept the transcripts hidden.

Here’s what actually happened between midnight and 8:30 a.m. after Jarvis Griffin was murdered.

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When investigators began questioning Williams, his story aligned with what the evidence and witnesses overwhelmingly suggest. Williams told detectives that he was standing out on the street with Gabriel and Moore when Gabriel told him they needed to “get” the pizza man. Williams refused, but Gabriel shot the pizza man, and Williams ran away. Later, Williams said, Gabriel called and told him he’d kill him if he told anybody what happened.

“They trying to get me to go to jail for they charge,” Williams said. (The older men were thought to have framed Williams and Gabriel because they thought the boys would be tried as minors. In fact, they were tried as adults.)

Despite this straightforward explanation, the police continued to aggressively question Williams through the night without letting him eat or sleep. Williams grew flustered and confused. After six hours, he began to answer the detectives’ leading questions (“Why did you shoot the man?”) differently. Eager to leave the station—“I’m tired,” he said, “I’m ready to go home and lay down”—Williams told the investigators what they wanted to hear. His fractured tale made little sense and did not align with eyewitness accounts. But the police took it as a confession.

While Williams was being questioned, detectives interviewed Nathan, as well as Patrick Anthony (a friend who split the robbery proceeds) and Derrick White (a witness in the neighborhood). Their accounts differed dramatically from Williams’ eventual confession; they all pointed toward Moore as the mastermind and either Moore or Gabriel as the shooter. Anthony said he saw Nathan give the gun to Moore. Nathan said his brother Gabriel shot Griffin, but Moore set him up: “I’m thinking Gabriel shot him,” he said, and “I think Rapist was in [on] it. He had set it up or something. He had to be.”

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The investigators concluded that the other men had set up Williams for the crime and possibly persuaded Gabriel to commit the actual murder.

“Did you hear [Moore] say that everybody was going to get together and say that Corey did the shooting?” one detective asked. Another put the matter plainly:

“It sounds to me,” he told the suspects, “y’all decided y’all going to blame it on Corey. … That’s exactly what I’m getting.”

By daybreak, the investigators had more or less cracked the case: Moore organized the crime, possibly with the help of Nathan. Moore may have fired the gun or compelled Gabriel to do it. Williams was innocent.

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But once Williams confessed, all of that went out the window. Prosecutors swiftly decided to charge Williams with first-degree murder and Gabriel with second-degree murder. At some point, the police explained their new theory of the case to the other men, who quickly adopted it as the truth. In Nathan’s and Moore’s trial testimonies, Williams became the shooter. To explain why Nathan, not Williams, had the murder weapon, Nathan claimed he found the gun in a barbecue pit in front of Williams’ house and took possession of it.

Williams was convicted primarily on the strength of these testimonies. Neither Nathan nor Moore was charged at all. Before the trial, Williams’ defense counsel repeatedly asked prosecutors to turn over the transcripts indicating that Williams was innocent. Prosecutors refused.

I asked G. Ben Cohen, Williams’ longtime attorney, what he made of the investigators’ about-face following Williams’ confession.

“The grossest part about it,” he told me, “is that the police knew. In their interviews with other witnesses, you hear them saying, ‘Corey could never have thought of this on his own.’ They knew at the time that he wasn’t smart enough to do this. They were telling the folks who did do it, ‘This isn’t Corey.’ But once Corey confessed after a night of interrogation, they flipped.”

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“What the prosecutor and the police did is outrageous,” Cohen continued. “They knew Williams was innocent and they just went forward anyway. Because it was easier. They don’t think his life matters.”

Why? I asked.

“Because he’s a young African American kid from Shreveport,” Cohen told me. “Whether it was him or Gabriel or Nathan didn’t make a difference to them.”

Williams is currently locked up in Angola, a notorious maximum-security prison. Cohen told me Williams has received certificates in programs for anger management and drug addiction. Williams doesn’t have anger management or drug addiction problems. But, Cohen explained, “He’s incredibly proud and earnest. He wants to be better. I don’t know if that’s the most endearing thing ever or sort of pathetic.”

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Aside from his education, Williams’ life in prison has been painful.

“It’s a really tough experience being at Angola with his limitations,” Cohen said. “People take advantage of you. Guards and inmates, they take your stuff. Corey has never said to me that he’d been raped by other inmates, but … ” He trailed off. “I know that rape and sexual slavery are pervasive. I know that Corey gets taken advantage of.” 

Armed with these previously concealed interrogation transcripts, Cohen and Williams recently filed an application for postconviction relief, asserting that the prosecution hid exculpatory evidence (namely, those late-night interviews) from Williams’ defense attorneys—a violation of his due process rights under Brady v. Maryland. In November, Louisiana District Judge Katherine Clark Dorroh bluntly rejected his application.

“Corey Williams confessed to the murder,” Dorroh wrote. “He admitted his guilt. The Court finds Petitioner’s claims concerning police opinions to be without merit.”

Cohen plans to appeal to a state circuit court, then to the state supreme court and federal district court if necessary. Williams, he told me, had been treated in a way that “no human being should ever be treated.” Cohen took up Williams’ case in 2001 after his initial conviction and grew dedicated to the task once he realized how terribly Williams’ original attorneys botched their defense—and how weak and contrived the state’s case against Williams truly was. At one point, Cohen said Louisiana instructed him to stop working on Williams’ case, since inmates serving life in prison have a limited right to postconviction counsel in the state. But Cohen pressed on, and today he’s still trying to free his client from prison.

Williams is not a cause célèbre—“once somebody’s off death row,” Cohen told me, “there’s less interest in their case.” He has not drawn national attention, nor have his unethical prosecutors been sanctioned. There are no podcasts or documentaries devoted to his plight. I asked Cohen why he remained devoted to exonerating Williams. When he started to speak, his voice caught briefly. 

“No one,” he told me, “has ever seemed to care about Corey.”