When powerful evidence showed that an Oklahoma State University hoops star had been wrongfully convicted of rape, Judge Phillip Corley had a chance to blow the whistle. Instead, he blew the call.
Then an Oklahoma appeals court ordered a hearing on jury misconduct in the case, giving Corley another shot. He blew that call, too.
Double technical on the ref. Corley should be tossed. Yet he continues to preside over the case of 24-year-old Darrell Williams, whose future is on hold indefinitely while the appeals court sorts out Corley's latest mess.
It all began in Dec. 2010 when two Caucasian female students at Oklahoma State University told the local cops that Williams, an African-American from Chicago, had penetrated them with his hand, called "rape by instrumentation." The allegations stemmed from an off-campus party attended by Williams, the star forward on the OSU Cowboys, and several of his teammates.
Three days after the party, the women picked out Williams' photo from a team shot. He was charged, brought to trial and a jury with no African-Americans convicted him after hearing tearful accounts of the unwanted groping. Williams was tossed in the Payne County jail to await sentencing.
But the evidence against Williams simply didn't add up. As I reported last year, the photo identification process was tainted, no physical evidence linked him to the reported crime (no torn undergarments, scratching or bruising) and none of the roughly 80 party-goers claimed to have seen or heard anything like what the accusers described. I also reported that Williams, 21 at the time, had a spotless criminal record, was a Big Twelve Academic All-American and passed two lie detector tests.
And there's more. The prosecution offered Williams two deals before the trial that would have spared him from an Oklahoma prison, where he faced up to 50 years if convicted. But he rejected both offers, saying he would not plead guilty to a crime he did not commit. Instead of realizing that something was wrong with her case, Jill Tontz, an ambitious assistant district attorney, gambled that a Stillwater jury would buy the stories of her white female accusers over a black defendant. Tontz won the bet.
Sensing the truth lay outside a Stillwater courtroom, I closed one article with a public appeal: "It's time to speak up, Stillwater. It's not too late for justice." The next day I got a call from a source who had information about Williams' accusers. While the source insisted on anonymity, s/he promised to provide facts that could be corroborated. The source also said the facts pointed to an inescapable conclusion: Darrell Williams was innocent.
After checking public records and interviewing other sources, I revealed that crucial evidence was not disclosed at the trial. The evidence showed that one accuser had a long history of emotional problems that included at least three hospitalizations. She also falsely accused her brother of assault and lied to the jury about her criminal history, according to court records. The other accuser was being treated for anxiety and depression that required medication. Most important, their testimonies were fundamentally inconsistent with the crime scene evidence.
Some of these findings found their way into Williams' lawyers' motion for a new trial presented to Judge Corley before sentencing. Corley, an OSU alum and county prosecutor who was elected judge in 2011, could have thrown out the jury's verdict and ordered a new trial. That would have been consistent with what he'd said at his swearing in ceremony, when he vowed to be "just and fair, always mindful of the effect of my decisions."
But, no Solomon, the judge split the baby. He allowed the conviction to stand, forcing Williams to register as a sex offender. Rather than sending Williams to prison, however, the judge sprung him from the county jail with a sentence of time served: 80 days.
The ruling made no sense to legal observers. If Corley believed that Williams was a sexual predator, why free him? If it's because Corley thought the jury had made a mistake, why let the conviction stand? "Compromised justice," I called it.
Williams returned home to Chicago, but with a rape conviction on his record -- and as a registered sex offender -- finding a job was nearly impossible. So was returning to college to finish his degree requirements. Who wants a convicted rapist on campus? What basketball team would touch him? His dreams, including playing in the NBA, were shattered.
Meanwhile, the fight was on to clear his name. Pro bono lawyers filed a brief with an Oklahoma appeals court alleging that the D.A.'s office had concealed the mental health histories of its star witnesses. The brief also cited the tainted identification and the lack of physical evidence or corroborative witnesses.
And the brief contained something new. A blockbuster. It alleged that Judge Corley's bailiff had pressured jurors into reaching a verdict when there were still several holdouts for an acquittal. The brief also alleged that jurors had made unauthorized visits to the crime scene, never a good idea in the middle of a trial.
The issue of jury misconduct convinced the appeals court to order a limited hearing - one that didn't get into the allegations against prosecutor Jill Tontz and her witnesses. Last month, three jurors admitted the claims in Williams' lawyers' brief were true.
According to court records, one juror after another swore under oath that bailiff Barbara Dungan had said things like "I'm going to lock you up in here" until a verdict was reached. Instead of causing a mistrial, the holdouts caved and Williams was found guilty. Dungan testified and denied the allegations, while another juror said he personally didn't hear them.
The deliberations were also tainted, jurors admitted, by visits to the crime scene at night to see if the lighting conditions permitted the accusers to identify Williams. You could see pretty well, a couple of jurors told the others during deliberations.
Now came Judge Corley's chance at redemption. The appeals court asked him to present "findings of fact" from the hearings to determine whether Williams should win a new trial. But three of Corley's four findings completely disregarded the jurors' testimony, court records reveal.
"This Court finds that the Bailiff, Barbara Dungan, did not make a statement to jurors about unanimous verdicts during deliberations," declared his first finding. Huh? Did three jurors lie under oath while the judge's buddy the bailiff told the truth and nothing but the truth? And in his final finding, although Corley generally acknowledged the unauthorized crime scene visits, he was strangely silent about the lighting conditions discussed during deliberations.
With Corley failing to do his job, the appeals court will have to determine fact from fiction. That will likely mean briefs from the defense objecting to Corley's findings, and briefs from the prosecutors defending their former colleague, who now dons black robes. Yet another year will be stolen from Williams' once-promising future.
There is, however, a way out of this mess. A lot has happened since the case was first tried. For one thing, prosecutor Jill Tontz has resigned from the D.A.'s office under a cloud of suspicion. For another, the lead detective in the case suddenly retired. And the accusers? Their claims under fire, one left the OSU campus and the other abandoned her attention-grabbing campaign for victims' rights.
The ball is now in the Stillwater D.A.'s court. He could continue to fight this case, or he could do what justice demands: Drop the appeal and apologize to Williams for ruining his young life. Apologize to actual rape victims everywhere whose claims may be taken less seriously because of cases like this one. Apologize to the taxpayers for misspending their money on this unjustified prosecution.
But being a local D.A. usually means never having to say you're sorry. So the Oklahoma Supreme Court should appoint a special prosecutor to look into this case. Let's find out if anyone obstructed justice.
And OSU should welcome back Williams for his final semester of eligibility. Give him back his jersey, number 25 in orange, and cheer loudly when, at long last, he proudly strides across the stage to receive his college degree.
If Darrell Williams gets real justice, count on one more thing. Judge Corley won't be among the distinguished alums seated on the stage.