LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — In a notorious case that unfolded nearly 20 years ago, a federal judge on Thursday vacated the convictions of Jessica Williams.
Williams, who was 20 years old at the time, was prosecuted in the deaths of six youths who were killed when her vehicle ran off Interstate 15 and plowed through the group as they picked up trash in the median.
The case was a groundbreaking test of Nevada laws to charge someone for being under the influence of marijuana, and the court ruling found flaws in the conviction.
The order provides for Williams’ release from any form of custody — she was paroled in October — but that is conditioned on a state decision within 30 days on whether to retry her.
Williams was granted a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that the convictions were based in part on the presence of a “marijuana metabolite” in her bloodstream — a substance that is not specifically prohibited.
In an 88-page document issuing the writ, US District Judge Kent J. Dawson explains the basis for his decision.
Prosecutors argued that “a person of reasonable intelligence” could conclude that the existing laws could apply to the circumstances of their case.
But the court ruling in favor of Williams takes issue with the grounds of the conviction:
As noted previously, Williams was convicted of violating N.R.S. 484.3795(1)(f) based in pertinent part upon allegedly having a prohibited substance in her blood at the relevant time. The pertinent verdict forms did not distinguish between a conviction based upon the presence of marijuana in her blood and one based upon the presence of marijuana metabolite. The verdicts instead referred in pertinent part to Williams driving and/or being in actual physical control “with a prohibited substance in blood.” (E.g., ECF No. 76-7, at 2.) Under the instructions and verdict forms, the jury thus could find Williams guilty on a legally invalid basis, the presence of marijuana metabolite, that denied her due process.
The court goes on to say:
… this Court cannot be reasonably certain that the jury did convict based on the valid marijuana alternative for culpability rather than the constitutionally invalid marijuana metabolite alternative, regarding Williams’ convictions based upon driving with a prohibited substance in her blood. Indeed, on the record presented, it was in truth more probable that the jury convicted Williams based on the invalid marijuana metabolite alternative.
8NewsNow reporter George Knapp interviewed Williams in 2018. She told him at the time she was terrified of being released from prison.