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David Protess

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Justice Compromised for Hoops Star in Oklahoma Rape Case

Posted: 10/12/2012 5:03 pm

Earlier today, an Oklahoma judge handed a 23-year-old African-American basketball player at Oklahoma State University two one-year suspended sentences for sexually assaulting a pair of Caucasian women at an off-campus party in 2010.

Darrell Williams, a Chicago native, was convicted in July by a Stillwater jury for thrusting his hand into the panties of the women, a crime known as rape by instrumentation. The prosecution's case consisted almost entirely of the women's allegations.

Williams has steadfastly professed his innocence. He has been in the Payne County jail for 80 days, which Judge Phillip Corley counted as time served. Williams was released this afternoon, but he will be required to register as a sex offender and will have a felony conviction on his record.

I have written about the gaping holes in the case on Aug. 22, Sept. 5, Sept. 18, Sept. 24 and Oct. 3. Among the findings:

  • Despite the accusers' claims that they struggled mightily to fend off the 6'8" power forward, there was no physical evidence of the assaults -- no torn clothing, bruises or scratches.
  • No independent witnesses among the 80 party-goers testified that Williams attacked the women or behaved inappropriately. Prior to the party, he had a spotless record and was named to the Big 12 Academic Team. His coaches, teammates, OSU students and area residents have rallied to support him.
  • Williams passed two lie-detector tests. He also twice refused deals for probation because, he said, he would not admit to a crime he did not commit.
  • One of the accusers had a long history of emotional problems that required hospitalization and had called the cops at least once to falsely report that her brother had battered her. The other accuser, whose psychological counseling records have also been subpoenaed, confused Williams for a teammate when searching for her purse at the party.
  • Both women identified Williams from a team photo shown by police, a discredited method for selecting suspects that is especially flawed in cross-racial identification cases.

But, discounting the evidence of Williams' innocence, Judge Corley rejected defense motions for a new trial. "There is not enough substantial evidence to grant a new trial," the judge ruled.

Asked by the judge if he had anything to say before pronouncing sentence, Williams declared: "I'm innocent. I didn't do anything."

"They railroaded my son, they railroaded my son," said Alice Williams upon leaving the courtroom. Family members sobbed and several OSU basketball players, who have stood by their teammate, expressed outrage that the judge had not tossed out the jury's verdict.

So who is responsible for what many consider to be a case of compromised justice? In addition to Judge Corley, a former prosecutor and colleague of current D.A. Tom Lee, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Assistant D.A. Jill Tontz.

The young prosecutor, trying to make a name by cracking down on sexual assaults, went after Williams without properly checking the accusers' stories or their personal histories. Becoming a victims' rights advocate is laudable -- as long as it doesn't blind a prosecutor to the truth.

Active on social media, Tontz has tweeted: "Just won my first Felony Jury Trial, what an adrenalin rush!!!" and "Too much wine last night, ouch!" When Darrell Williams loudly proclaimed his innocence to jurors after they returned the guilty verdict, Tontz reacted by tearfully clutching the arm of a sheriff's deputy.

Professional law enforcement at its finest.

Defense Attorneys Cheryl Ramsey and William Baker

Widely respected for their legal acumen, and indisputably dedicated to defending Darrell Williams against charges they believed were unjust, Ramsey and Baker failed to do their homework in preparing for trial. Even the best lawyers can't properly cross-examine witnesses if they haven't conducted a thorough investigation.

Ramsey and Baker didn't discover the accusers' pasts until after their client had been convicted. (I am pathetic at Internet searches, but found public records about one accuser's psychiatric history in about 15 minutes.) They also failed to cultivate a witness at the party who could have testified that one of the women confused him with Williams, neglecting to subpoena the witness until a year after he dropped out of OSU and left town.

The defense stepped up its efforts after Rev. Jesse Jackson and Bishop Tavis Grant came to Stillwater. The famed civil rights leaders lit a fire under the campus and community, but for two small town lawyers, it was too little, too late.

The Jurors

Eleven Caucasians and one Asian. About says it all in a sex crime involving white accusers and a black defendant. Jurors allowed themselves to be swayed by the emotional testimony of the accusers instead of rationally scrutinizing the facts.

The Accusers

At first, it seemed they had made an innocent mistake, the kind that's all too common in cross-racial identification cases. But as sources on the ground came forward, and further information emerged about the party, the accusers' stories became more troubling. While I have repeatedly challenged readers who claimed the accusers lied, one thing is clear: Their stories simply don't add up.

Oklahoma Lawmakers.

The tough-on-crime legislature is responsible for the statute under which Darrell Williams was prosecuted. That law allows anyone to claim they were raped by instrumentation -- even if there is no physical evidence of penetration and no corroborative witnesses. In effect, a person with questionable motives can accuse anyone of rape without proving that a crime occurred. This law should shock the conscience of libertarian conservatives and progressives alike. It must be rewritten.

In wrongful conviction cases, no one person deserves all the blame. There is a witch's brew in play. But, recognizing that people are human and mistakes are inevitable, the founders created a safeguard: appellate court review.

Darrell Williams will appeal his conviction. He has a lot going for him, including a staunchly supportive family, loyal friends and an offer of pro bono assistance by a prominent Chicago law firm. And, he is free.

But until the appeal is decided, perhaps in a year or so, Williams will remain a convicted felon and a registered sex offender. He will have to report to an Oklahoma probation officer. His college days at OSU will be over and his once-promising basketball career put on hold indefinitely. The stigma will make finding a job difficult.

He has been legally violated.

 
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