Williams: Eleventh Circuit Holds That Defendant Who Testified to His Innocence at Trial Should Have Received Sentencing Enhancement for Obstruction of Justice and No Reduction for Acceptance of Responsibility

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided United States v. Williams. The Court held that the sentencing judge clearly erred in granting a reduction for acceptance of responsibility and denying an enhancement for obstruction of justice because Mr. Williams testified to his factual innocence at trial after withdrawing his guilty plea.

Following a car chase in Atlanta, Georgia that culminated with Mr. Williams receiving a gun shot to an eye, Williams was charged with assaulting three federal marshals. Williams entered a guilty plea, but withdrew it due to the potential sentence. He then testified at trial that he hadn’t known his pursuers in unmarked vehicles were law enforcement officers.

The sentencing judge relied on a presentence report that recommended he receive three points off for acceptance of responsibility. She explained, “I think particularly in this case where he was shot, his ability to have his own trial and tell his story was important. I mean, I consider that an important part of my job, is to provide trials to people who have a story that legitimately needs telling.” Explaining that she would not punish Mr. Williams for exercising his constitutional right to trial, she awarded two points off for acceptance of responsibility. The Eleventh Circuit held that it was “erroneous to award a reduction for acceptance of responsibility when a defendant denies guilt in the face of evidence to the contrary” and Mr. Williams had done exactly that by “admitt[ing] he was guilty initially, but withdr[awing] his plea” and then testifying to his innocence “despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

However, “[t]he district court found that Williams’s testimony did not contradict the testimony of the federal marshals.” In determining whether Mr. Williams had committed perjury, requiring the obstruction of justice enhancement, the sentencing judge “did not find Mr. Tywan Williams’ testimony to be materially different from any of [the three witnesses who were at the scene.]” She also explained: “in light of the fact that this whole incident resulted in him being shot in the head, he, I think, is entitled to some leeway regarding his memory of the sequence of events.” She was unable to make a finding that he committed perjury “based on the testimony that [she] heard in comparison with the other testimony at trial and what [she knew] about this.” Despite the district judge’s greater contextual knowledge, the Eleventh Circuit held that “Williams’s testimony that he did not recognize his pursuers as federal marshals is irreconcilable with the record” and, as such, perjury requiring an enhancement for obstruction of justice.

The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion is available here.