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David Protess

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Did Oklahoma Wrongfully Convict a Chicago Hoops Standout?

Posted: 08/22/2012 11:46 am

"Oh my Jesus God," Darrell Williams cried out as he heard the verdicts. Turning to the jury, Williams exclaimed: "I didn't do it!"

The jury had just found Williams, a basketball player at Oklahoma State University, guilty of two counts of rape by instrumentation. Two women had testified that Williams had groped them at an off-campus party by reaching inside their pants. And the Stillwater, Oklahoma jury had believed them.

"This verdict represents justice," said prosecutor Jill Tontz outside the courthouse.

If the judge follows the jury's recommendation, Williams will be sentenced on Friday to two years of hard time. The 22-year-old Chicago native will have to register as a sex offender and will be stigmatized for life as a convicted felon.

So, when Williams loudly professes his innocence, we should at least listen.

Williams became a suspect when the two complaining witnesses picked out his photo for police, according to news reports. But the women weren't shown the usual photo spread of mug shots. That wasn't possible -- because Williams had no criminal record.

Instead, since the alleged offender was wearing an OSU Cowboys warm-up suit, the cops showed the women a photo of the basketball team. Williams was the perp, they declared.

When Williams was brought in for questioning, however, he immediately professed his innocence. "I don't know what happened [to the women]," Williams said in an audio-recorded interview. "I was probably misidentified." To prove his innocence, he agreed to take a lie detector test -- and passed. No doubt thinking the first test was a fluke, the authorities asked him to take another one. Passed it, too.

A check with OSU officials revealed that Williams was an honors student with a 4.0 grade point average. He left Chicago, where he graduated from Dunbar High School, to escape urban violence after his older brother Derrick was murdered while visiting their grandmother. As a junior at OSU, Williams earned a basketball scholarship and became the Cowboys' starting forward. His coach and fellow players were convinced he was innocent.

Witnesses at the party told police they had not heard anyone scream or seen any inappropriate behavior. Neither of the women suffered cuts or scratches, and their clothing was not torn. Both had been drinking before they arrived at the dimly lit party. Most important, several party-goers were OSU players wearing warm-up suits just like the kind donned by Williams.

But the complaining witnesses insisted Williams had groped them, and their testimony was enough for the jury to convict him after eight hours of deliberation. Could both women have gotten it wrong? Was this a case of mistaken identity, as Williams had immediately claimed to police?

Tragically, such cases happen more often than the public would like to believe, especially with sexual assaults. A landmark study of wrongful convictions in which prisoners were officially exonerated found that 80 percent of the errors in sexual assault cases were due to false witness identifications. In other words, eight out of 10 complaining witnesses were mistaken -- the highest error rate of any type of wrongful conviction.

The racial breakdown of these cases is eye-popping. Black defendants comprised more than two-thirds of sexual assault exonerees, and white victims inaccurately testified in 72 percent of these cases. To put it another way, a majority of the acknowledged wrongful convictions in sexual assault cases involved white victims who misidentified black defendants.

And, yes, race matters profoundly in assessing Darrell Williams claim of innocence. Williams is black. The two women are white. Other black Cowboys basketball players were at the party. At least two black men on the team closely resembled Williams in height, build and skin tone.

But instead of showing the complaining duo a photo of each potential suspect and asking if they could identify it, the authorities made a fatal mistake. They used the team picture -- forcing the witnesses to compare one black player to another. This must have been confusing. In picking Williams, it would have been natural to choose the black player who looked most like the person who groped them, even if he was not necessarily the actual assailant.

Aware of the growing research on false witness identifications, several states have taken steps to reduce the error rate. In North Carolina, police procedures changed after a white rape victim falsely identified her black assailant despite closely studying his features, only to later champion reforms with the man she had wrongfully put behind bars. Most recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered trial judges to give jurors special instructions about the fallibility of witnesses.

Not in Oklahoma. The Stillwater jury that decided Williams' fate received no cautionary words from the judge. But would it have mattered, considering the jury was comprised of 11 whites and one Asian?

So let's summarize. Williams, an honors student with an unblemished record, was convicted by a jury with no black people on it of an interracial crime that lacked independent witnesses or physical evidence and was based on a notoriously flawed method for identifying suspects.

As for the white prosecutor who crowed about justice, she tearfully clutched the arm of a sheriff's deputy when Williams reacted to the jury's verdict -- even though he merely professed his innocence without leaving the defense table.

The prosecutor should cry. Everyone responsible for this case should shed tears. They ruined a young man's life.

To learn more about Darrell Williams' mother's fight to save her son, read Mary Mitchell's column in the Chicago Sun-Times, "Conviction but no tangible evidence."

 
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