Williams v. Florida: Case Summary & Importance

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you will learn the background and overview of Williams v. Florida. You will learn about the Fifth and Sixth Amendments that are heavily discussed in this case, as well as the importance of Williams v. Florida. Following the lesson will be a brief quiz to test your knowledge.

What Is Williams v. Florida?

Williams v. Florida, 399 U.S. 78, in 1970, was a U.S. Supreme Court case that determined that the Fifth Amendment did not excuse a criminal defendant from having to disclose his alibi witnesses before trial; it also concluded that the Sixth Amendment did not require that his jury be 12 people. Let's take a quick look at the fifth and sixth amendments before learning about the case.

Overview of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was created to protect the rights of criminals or trial defendants, guilty or not. Williams was convicted of burglary. When he was asked to reveal his alibi witnesses before trial, he felt like he was being coerced to incriminate himself because this would be assisting the prosecution in arranging rebuttal evidence against his alibi(s).

There is a clause in the fifth amendment that safeguards individuals from being forced to implicate or incriminate themselves. This is why an individual can refuse to answer questions posed by a police officer (often until they have a lawyer present) if the answer could possibly expose their guilt. Williams was arguing that providing his alibi witnesses before trial was in violation of his fifth amendment rights.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was created to protect an individual's rights to have a relatively speedy public trial, a lawyer, a jury, knowledge of who the accusers are, and comprehension of the nature of the crime that he committed. Have you ever seen the 1957 film, Twelve Angry Men? Many people, including Williams, envision a jury to be 12 people. When Williams noticed that his jury was only 6 people, he felt like his sixth amendment rights were being violated.

The Fifth and Sixth Amendments are a part of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.
Bill of Rights image.

Overview of the Case

After being convicted of burglary, Williams was tried in Florida state court. As stated above, he refused to provide his alibi witnesses to the court pretrial because he felt it was violating his fifth amendment rights. An alibi witness is a person that proves a criminal defendant was elsewhere at the time the crime was committed, and therefore would not have been able to commit the crime. He also thought that the 6-person jury, instead of 12, was violating his sixth amendment rights. He motioned for a protective order with the Supreme Court.

Conclusions of the Case

Williams did not win the case in either of his motions for protective order. In fact, Williams was eventually convicted of the burglary charge and given a life sentence. The Supreme Court overruled Williams's motion for a protective order and required him to provide his alibi, which was a friend named Mary Scotty. Her story was inconsistent from pretrial to trial and she reported that she was with Williams when she was actually being questioned by police.

The Supreme Court concluded that if a person does not provide his alibi(s) pretrial, he cannot use them in trial. The reason is that if alibi witnesses were only presented in trial, there would not be enough time for the prosecution to fully research whether or not these witnesses were valid.

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