August 16, 2017

Five years of waiting in jail, then a quick jury acquittal

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Jeanne Kuang/Injustice Watch

Omar Williams, 28, after his acquittal on murder charges.

As Omar Williams sat in a cell in the police lockup on a September day, accused of murder, he didn’t panic. Instead, he thought to himself, I’ll be home within 18 to 24 months.

It would be more than five and a half years before Williams would make his way home, however. The trial, when it finally came, revealed the prosecution’s thin case against Williams: With no actual physical evidence tying him to the crime, the case hinged on the word of the surviving victim who had told several different stories about the night in question to police.

In the meantime, Williams sat for years in the Cook County Jail, an often-overcrowded institution filled with thousands of suspects who, convicted of nothing, are held in custody awaiting their day in court. On the final day of Williams’s trial, there were 925 detainees who had been held in custody at the jail for more than two years, and 75 suspects, like Williams, who had been awaiting trial for more than five years. Thousands more had been held for months, many accused of nonviolent offenses, according to data from the sheriff’s office.

Injustice Watch first learned of Williams’s case last year, more than four and a half years after he was first arrested, and followed the case as it made its way to trial. Tracking the case offered a striking view of just how slowly Cook County’s wheels of justice can move, how askew justice can go and the toll it can take on the lives of those caught up in the system.

6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed…

It is not unusual for the defense to seek repeated delays, hoping the prosecution’s case will weaken over time. But in Williams’s case, he made clear in court that he wanted to go to trial quickly.

Williams’s ordeal began back in September, 2011. The City of Chicago was months into the first term of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry were among the candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination. U.S. forces had recently killed Osama bin Laden in a raid on a Pakistan compound.

Williams was arrested and charged with a murder and shooting that occurred near a playground on Chicago’s West Side.

The arrest led Williams to be shipped to a state prison for violating parole. He spent the next five and a half months serving out his sentence.

The seasons changed. His son, also named Omar, was born.

On March 16, 2012, he was brought back to the Cook County Jail to wait.

For two and a half years Williams waited, then learned his girlfriend, the mother of his son, could not wait for him anymore.

And Williams was not even halfway done with his waiting.

He waited through the jail fights and the fires, the stabbings and the bad food, and through the nights when his cell was too cold to fall asleep. He waited through 65 court continuances.

He waited as county officials wrung their hands over the number of suspects being held in custody.

He waited as the younger Omar had five birthdays without him. In all, he waited for five years, eight months and twelve days.

On June 8, 2017, in courtroom 402, the wait was finally over. After a three-and-a-half-day trial, 12 strangers were prepared to decide his fate.

Fear replaced the relative calm and confidence that had been with him since his arrest. Williams knew about the jail rumors: if the jury takes less than six hours to decide your fate, consider yourself found guilty. His jurors had been fed lunch and then deliberated for less than two hours.

Williams recalled thinking the worst. I think they found me guilty, and I know I didn’t do this.

One of his attorneys reminded him to breathe.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Kevin M. Sheehan read the jury’s verdict: Not guilty of the murder of Javonne Oliphant. Not guilty of the attempted murder of Andre Gladney. Not guilty on all counts.

Williams’s attorneys have since filed suit, contending he was wrongly arrested and detained despite a lack of evidence.

“We believe that they wrongfully pursued a charge against Omar knowing that the evidence pointed in a different direction,” said attorney Paul Vickrey. “And, I mean, ultimately that cost him five years and eight months of liberty.”

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, in a recent interview, conceded the system fails when a defendant spends years locked up waiting for trial that a jury acquits in a short amount of time. “We have to own that,” Foxx said, speaking generally of such failures. She said she has encouraged an examination of the process to ensure the strength of prosecution evidence as cases wind through the system.

“You don’t get that time back,” she said of people held excessively in custody pretrial.

The murder

A police sketch of the scene of the July 1, 2011 ABLA Homes shooting that the prosecution provided to the defense.

On the night of July 1, 2011, two friends were shot in a hail of bullets near a playground at the ABLA Homes, a public housing complex. Javonne Oliphant, 22, was shot three times; his friend, Andre Gladney, 23, was shot nine times.

Police recovered spent casings from two different caliber weapons at the scene, as well as a loaded Ruger P345 semi-automatic handgun, a fired bullet, a bicycle and a cell phone.

Oliphant died as a result of the gunshot wounds, but Gladney survived. The next day he told police that he was texting his girlfriend when the gunfire erupted, and that he did not see who shot him or Oliphant.

Other witnesses were not much more help. As police interviewed ABLA residents to learn more about Oliphant’s murder, it seemed, almost no one knew anything. To prosecutors, the reluctance to speak up was grounded in fear of retaliation from gang members against anyone who gives information to the police. To some members of the community, however, the reluctance was bred by mistrust of the police, stoked by years of perceived mistreatment and abuse.

One man, Kenneth McNeal, told police he was at the scene and spoke with Gladney shortly before the shooting. Detectives in a police report quote him as saying during their interview that “if I saw the incident, I probably wouldn’t tell you about it.”

A security guard in the area told police that he ran to the scene upon hearing gunfire, and saw one of the shooters. His description: The man was 17 to 25 years old, about 170 pounds, five foot seven inches tall, with short dreadlocks and a dark complexion.

An overhead security camera captured the chaotic scene. The footage showed a light-colored minivan pulling up to the scene shortly before the shooting.

That van was used to transport Omar Williams’s cousin, Antoine Williams, who was confined to a wheelchair. Omar Williams was one of two caretakers whom Antoine Williams employed.

About a month after the shooting when Chicago police detectives Marco Garcia and Donald Hill obtained the surveillance footage, they met with Gladney for a second interview. This time, he told the police that a group was hanging out near a white and green handicapped-accessible van when he witnessed one man, then another start shooting at him. Gladney identified the two shooters as Omar Williams and Carnell Jones.

Three days later, Jones was arrested on illegal gun possession charges after Chicago Police Officer Brandon Smith observed him through a basement window posing for a photo with two firearms, according to police. After the arrest, police submitted the guns for comparison testing with the casings found at the scene of Oliphant’s murder.

By September 22, a police report identified Williams and Jones as suspects in Oliphant’s murder. The report described 22-year-old Williams as being five feet seven inches tall, 170 pounds with dreadlocks and a dark complexion, which almost perfectly matched the description of the shooter by the security guard at the scene.

More than a month and a half after Gladney had named Jones as a shooter, police went to the jail to question him about the ABLA Homes shooting.

Jones, according to a police report, denied involvement in the shooting and told detectives that he had heard on the streets that it was Williams who had murdered Oliphant. He stopped talking after police told him that Gladney named him as a shooter and that they believed the gun they recovered when they arrested him matched one of the guns used in the incident.

The next day, Williams got in his girlfriend’s car with seven dollars in his pocket and a plan to buy a two-piece meal deal from Church’s Chicken. But a squad car pulled him over after waiting at a red light on 79th street. Officers found a gun in the vehicle, according to the arrest report, and took Williams in for questioning.

Following the arrest, Cook County prosecutors and Chicago police detectives Garcia and Hill went to the home of Antoine Williams, who, according to the report, told police his cousin Omar had driven him to the ABLA Homes on the night of the murder.

Then the prosecutors and detective Garcia spoke with Gladney once more that day, as he added an additional detail to his story: not only had he seen Omar Williams and Jones shoot at him, but he watched Williams shoot and kill Oliphant.

On September 28, 2011, Williams was charged with murder, aggravated battery and unlawful use of a weapon by a felon.

Upon his arrest, Williams was shipped to the Stateville Correctional Center, an Illinois prison outside of Joliet, for violating his terms of parole for a 2008 conviction for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon.

At Stateville Williams learned that his son had been born. It would be several months before he would get to meet and hold his son for the first time in the prison’s visiting room.

On October 13, 2011, Gladney repeated his accusation before a grand jury with a few new details, including that Williams had walked up behind him the night of the incident and grabbed him by the shoulders with both hands. As he tried to free himself from the grasp, Gladney said, Williams shot him and he fell to the ground.

Seven days before Gladney told police for the first time that he watched Williams shoot his friend, a federal court in Iowa had issued a warrant for Gladney’s arrest on charges of conspiracy to distribute heroin. Four days after he testified to the grand jury, agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency and Chicago Police arrested him on that warrant, according to court records.

The waiting

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

Division 9 of Cook County Jail

Williams was transferred back to Cook County Jail on March 16, 2012 to await the murder trial. Williams and Jones’s cases would be tried simultaneously before different juries.

Early on, Williams wanted a private attorney. He first hired Steven M. Wagner; but Wagner, in April, 2012, was appointed as a Cook County associate judge.

Williams next settled on attorney Shelby Prusak, whom Williams said told him his case would be easily won.

But Williams became increasingly frustrated as the case dragged on for the next two years. As Williams remembers it, Prusak told him they were not ready for trial because they were waiting to get information back, and that she was waiting on his co-defendant. Prusak, in an email, wrote that she was not available to comment for this article.

In February, 2013, prosecutors submitted DNA swabs from Jones and Williams for testing against DNA from the bicycle found at the murder scene, court records show.

The results finally came back in January, 2014: That physical evidence did not connect Omar Williams to the scene.

The waiting continued.

Though Williams tried his best to make the most of the moments with his son, like trying to make him laugh through the glass in the jail’s visiting area and listening to his baby talk over the phone, the absence was taking a toll. Williams had missed things, important things, like his son taking his first steps. And, to Williams, it felt like his attorney was not willing to take him to trial.

As Williams’s two-year anniversary in custody came and went without a trial, he thought, okay, I need to hurry up and demand trial. I need to get home to my son. I need to get home to my family.

By February 2014, Williams was ready for something to happen. In a disruption of the usual monotony of his courtroom appearances, Williams decided to speak up.

Williams interrupted Judge Kevin M. Sheehan in open court, according to the transcript, and told the court that he was demanding trial.

In response, the judge said, “That’s not your call. It’s the lawyer’s call.”

A month later came more bad news: Williams’s girlfriend was leaving him. She had been paying for Williams’s private counsel, and those payments would soon stop.

Meanwhile, Williams and his cellmate were becoming increasingly critical of the conditions in which they were being held. They each filed a formal written grievance, and said they verbally complained several times contending that the small cell they were assigned to in Division 9 of the Cook County Jail was so cold that ice had formed on the walls.

When their grievances went nowhere, the two filed a pro se complaint in March, 2014, in U.S. District Court in Chicago, contending their cell was inhumanely cold.

In August, the court appointed a private civil law firm to represent the two inmates in their civil rights claim. Attorneys Paul Vickrey and Dylan Brown from that firm took on the claim.

Illinois Speedy Trial statute

Every person in custody in this State for an alleged offense shall be tried by the court having jurisdiction within 120 days from the date he or she was taken into custody unless delay is occasioned by the defendant, by an examination for fitness ordered pursuant to Section 104-13 of this Act, by a fitness hearing, by an adjudication of unfitness to stand trial, by a continuance allowed pursuant to Section 114-4 of this Act after a court’s determination of the defendant’s physical incapacity for trial, or by an interlocutory appeal.

Meanwhile, the criminal case plodded along. In September, 2014, Williams severed ties with attorney Prusak and assistant Cook County public defender LaFonzo Palmer was appointed to the case. Williams said Palmer told him he was searching for more witnesses, and moving slowly in order to do things the right way. Each month, the case would be called for a status hearing; each month, both sides agreed to continue the case as Williams sat in jail.

Palmer declined to comment for this article.

The state’s attorney’s office also sought nearly two-and-half-years-worth of phone conversations Williams and Jones had while they were in custody, according to court records.

In January, 2016 – more than four years after the murder – prosecutors made another submission to the state lab, requesting DNA testing on swabs from the handgun found at the scene.

Six months later, Williams talked to an Injustice Watch reporter from jail. “Sometimes I feel like nothing,” Williams said that June. “I feel like nobody.”

Williams related what happened at a status hearing the day before, held on his 27th birthday. Williams asked the judge if he could hug his son, who was in the courtroom. The judge said no.

By this time, two of his aunts had died while he waited in custody. There were days he had to force himself to eat. And he missed seeing the grammar school graduation of his little brother, who has Down syndrome.

That month, the attorneys appointed to represent Williams in the lawsuit against the jail, Paul Vickrey and Dylan Brown, agreed to take on his criminal case pro bono. It was their first murder trial.

Williams said he remained confident that he would be found not guilty.

A year later, the case of the People v. Williams would finally be called for trial, while People v. Jones was simultaneously being considered by a different jury.

The trial

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

A courtroom in Cook County Circuit Court

In the nearly six years since the arrest, the case against Williams had not aged well for prosecutors. In fact, it would turn out that police reports had overstated the evidence in the first place.

For one thing, Williams was nothing like he was described in an early police report – five feet seven inches tall, 170 pounds, with short dreadlocks and a dark complexion. In fact, four months after he first was arrested, a later police report more closely reflected Williams: Five foot eleven inches tall, 230 pounds, with short black hair and a dark complexion. Williams, in other words, did not actually match the physical description provided by the security guard who was at the scene of the murder.

The police report also had listed, without explanation, Williams as the “possessor/user” of the Ruger P345 handgun found at the scene. The DNA testing on the gun in 2016 showed no match to Williams, though.

The earlier DNA testing of the bicycle performed in 2013, as well a fingerprint comparison from the bike also had not connected Williams to the scene.

Co-defendant Carnell Jones’s statement to police that he had heard on the street that Williams had committed the murder was not admissible, and Jones, according to Williams’s attorneys, in any event insisted he had never made that statement.

With only distant video and no physical evidence, that left the case against Williams largely up to Andre Gladney, the surviving victim, who at trial would change his story one last time.

Gladney told the jury that his original statement to police, that he had not seen who fired the shots, was the truth. What he told the police on August 9, 2011 – when he identified Jones and Williams as the shooters – was not. A toxicology report found PCP, marijuana and alcohol in Gladney’s system after the shooting.

Gladney testified that the Ruger P345 pistol found at the scene was his. He said he told the detective “what he wanted me to tell him” after police told him that they had found a gun at the scene and they knew he was in trouble with the federal government.

Gladney, in an email sent to Injustice Watch from prison after the trial, said he believes the police just waited for him to testify to the grand jury to get what they wanted out of him before the DEA arrested him days later.

Homicide detective Marco Garcia took the stand, and denied that he knew Gladney had a federal case against him. He also testified that he did not tell Gladney that a gun had been found at the scene.

Garcia could not explain why reports had described Williams’s physical appearance in a manner that matched the security guard’s description of the shooter. Nor could he explain why Williams had been listed as the “possessor/user” of the weapon found at the scene if the gun was not found on Williams.

The police department reported that the detectives were not available to comment.

The defense presented evidence that police mistakenly considered Williams a suspect because he frequently drove his cousin in the van shown on the surveillance video. But, attorney Vickrey contended, Williams was one of two drivers paid by the state to escort Antoine Williams. And it had been the other driver, Keith Slugg, who had driven the van to the scene that night, the defense said.

Slugg was on electronic monitoring that night, and records show he had left his house on work release the night of the murder.

In the pending civil lawsuit contending Williams was wrongly arrested and confined, the attorneys contend the police tested the bicycle hoping to tie Williams to the scene through DNA once they realized that Slugg, not Williams, had driven the van that night.

Slugg was murdered two months after Oliphant’s death.

For Williams’s jurors, apparently, Gladney’s ever-changing word was not enough to convict. The separate jury convicted Jones, whom prosecutors said had been connected to the shooting by bullet casings found at the scene.

When Latoya Williams, Omar Williams’s older sister, heard the verdict, all she could think was that it had all been for nothing. A complete waste of time. A complete waste of money.

The 1,910 days Williams spent in the Cook County Jail waiting would cost the county on average $273,000, on top of the cost of the five and a half months he initially spent in the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

Omar Williams and his older sister, Latoya Williams.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Latoya Williams turned and said to her brother this July. “What was going on for the past five years?”

Looking back, Omar Williams said he believes there were two reasons the case dragged on. The state was either working to mentally wear him down so that he would take a plea, which he said he would under no circumstances have accepted, or that prosecutors were hoping some evidence would have turned up.

“There were many points along the way where somebody should have stopped the train,” said Williams’s attorney, Vickrey. “And there were many points along the way nevertheless they proceeded anyway — we believe, in total disregard of Omar’s rights.”

Within weeks of his release, Williams got a job making doughnuts at a shop on the South Side. He recently got a second position, working at ConTextos, an organization that uses literacy to address violence on Chicago’s streets. And he started a new relationship with Latasha Green, “soon to be Williams,” he said.

After being found not guilty, Williams spent his first few days of freedom with his son and his family.

“Every night he sleeps on my chest,” Williams said, days after his release as his son sat next to him, sporadically playing with a fidget spinner. “He tells me how much he loves me, I’m the best daddy in the world, he’s glad I’m home.”