Five years after the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld her conviction in the November 2003 murder of a 19-year-old man, 54-year-old Kathy Ellen Walters Williams is back in court trying to get a new trial.
In April 2005, a Letcher Circuit Court jury convicted Williams of murder in the shooting death of Forrester Caudill, whom Williams shot in the chest near a Jeremiah sawmill just three days after Thanksgiving. In November 2007, the state’s highest court agreed 6-0 in to let stand the jury’s conviction and subsequent sentencing of Williams to life in prison.
Now, Williams has filed a motion under the Kentucky Rules of Criminal Procedure — known as a RCr 11 .42 motion — in which she says her conviction and sentence should be overturned because she received ineffective assistance from her lawyer, retired Department of Public Advocacy attorney Peyton Reynolds of Mayking.
Motions like the one most recently filed by Williams rarely succeed. An evidentiary hearing is scheduled before Letcher Circuit Judge Samuel T. Wright III on October 12. On Monday, Wright, pointing out that it has been eight years since Reynolds was involved in the case, signed an order directing current Public Advocacy attorneys to allow Reynolds to view the entire case file and discuss its contents with Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison G. Banks II in preparation for next week’s hearing.
Williams previously challenged her conviction on grounds the jury was given faulty instructions on the definition of self-protection, and that Banks committed prosecutorial misconduct when he misstated to the jury that Williams had been taking the drug PCP.
While the Supreme Court found there was an error in the jury instructions and that Banks’s portrayal of Williams as a drug addict was “highly prejudicial” to the jury, the six justices also found the evidence against Williams to be so “overwhelming” that neither error affected the outcome of her five-day trial.
The confrontation between Williams and Caudill began after Williams saw the small pickup truck Caudill was driving pull up next to the sawmill near where Williams was living. Caudill had gone to the sawmill to check on a car that belonged to him. After taking an antique gun from the late Begie Breeding Jr., the owner of the house she was living in at the time, Williams went out to confront Caudill, whom she knew to be related to another young man she had accused of burning down her house just several days before.
A woman who lived near the sawmill testified that she saw Caudill get out of the truck and walk over and get into the car parked at the sawmill. The witness said she saw Williams walk by the car Caudill was in, then saw Williams come back to the car and confront Caudill after Williams saw him getting back out of it. The witness testified that when she saw Williams raise the gun and point it at Caudill, she and her daughter and son-in-law ran behind the house they were living in and heard gunshots being fired shortly thereafter.
Caudill got back into his truck after being wounded in the chest and began driving away from the scene, but bled to death before he got the vehicle back onto the road. Police found a black-handled kitchen knife under a pile of trash in the floorboard of the passenger side of the truck, but no blood was found on the knife even though Caudill had large amounts of blood on both hands at the time of his death.
The same gun Williams used to murder Caudill was also used in the murder of an award-winning Canadian filmmaker in Letcher County in 1967.
Both shootings occurred on property that once belonged to the late Hobart Ison, who in March 1969 pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the death of Montreal filmmaker Hugh O’Connor, killed in September 1967.
Police found the gun in 2003 hidden under a rock on the top of a mountain about five miles away from where Caudill, and years earlier, O’Connor, were killed. The gun was soaked in motor oil to prevent laboratory technicians from recovering fingerprints. At the time, Begie Breeding Jr. told The Mountain Eagle his family took ownership of the gun after Ison pleaded guilty to manslaughter on March 24, 1969.
Breeding said the gun was given to his family by the Letcher County Sheriff ’s Department and placed in a safety deposit box in the Bank of Whitesburg. He said the gun remained in the bank until he took it out while Whitesburg-based Appalshop was filming “Stranger With a Camera,” a 2000 documentary about the death of O’Connor. The gun later found its way into the hands of Williams while she was living in Breeding’s home.