Life or Death? / Danville case poses key question for high court
Saturday, January 8, 2000
BY FRANK GREEN
W ithin months of killing his drinking companion and fishing buddy, Harris T. Stone, Terry Williams started a fire at a neighbor's front door, wounded the man and stole his money when he fell.
"I went into the kitchen and I grabbed a knife, a small steak knife, and I just plunged him in the side with it," Williams told police. "I don't know whether I wanted him to die or just wanted to see what he had in his pocket."
Williams also beat an elderly woman, causing such severe brain damage that a physician testifying in the case agreed, "She's just a vegetable."
That's the Terry Williams a Danville jury decided St. in Danville. His father, who died in 1980, earned $57 a week as a custodian in a local school.
Terry Williams, an expert says, was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, a leading cause of mental retardation. His mother and father manufactured bootleg liquor and beer, says Williams' clemency petition to Gov. Jim Gilmore. His mother was convicted at least once of possession of illegal alcohol, according to Danville court records.
"I drank liquor when I was pregnant with Terry," Lula Williams wrote Gilmore in March. "He only weighed 4 pounds when he was born. He was so little I could carry him in my hand.
"I feel bad that I did this to Terry -- that his brain does not work right because of the way I drank liquor. Back then we didn't know that it did that to a baby," she wrote.
The Williams family life during Terry's early years was a disaster.
On Feb. 26, 1957, Danville Police Officer T.C. Talley Jr. went to the Williams residence to investigate a report that some youngsters there had been drinking.
When Talley arrived, according to a Danville Juvenile Court report, "Lula and Noah were sitting on the front porch and were in such a drunken state, it was almost impossible for them to get up."
"They staggered into the house to where the children were asleep. Terry, age 1, and Noah Jr., age 3, were asleep on the sofa. There was an odor of alcohol on the breath of Noah Jr.," said the report.
Olivia, a sister, "had just awakened and was very sick. She said she was hungry and had been drinking whiskey. Ohair [a brother] was completely passed out and never could be awakened.
"The home was a complete wreck," the report said. "There were several places on the floor where someone had had a bowel movement. Urine was standing in several places in the bedrooms. There were dirty dishes scattered all over the kitchen, and it was impossible to step on any place on the kitchen floor where there was no trash."
Four of the five children were under the influence of whiskey. The children were placed in Winslow Hospital and later were sent to a court boarding home. Both parents were convicted of five counts of neglect, according to Department of Youth and Family Services records.
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The children returned to the custody of their parents on April 15, 1959, but problems continued.
Noah Williams "was described by his wife and children as being a violent, abusive man who beat Terry with a belt after tying him to the bed. Terry's [siblings] indicate in their affidavits that Terry would stay out all night in an effort to avoid his father's wrath," Dr. Thomas L. Pinckert wrote in a 1995 medical evaluation of Terry Williams.
Pinckert, a clinical geneticist in Potomac, Md., was asked by Williams' lawyers to determine whether he was affected by fetal alcohol syndrome.
Pinckert concluded he was and noted that Williams "was also sexually assaulted by an older man who picked him up and took him to an office building where he was forced to engage in inappropriate touching."
Terry Williams started crossing the law early in life.
According to court records, when he was 8 years old, Williams broke 25 window panes in a house he vandalized on New Street. About three years later, in 1966, he stole a bicycle and was placed on probation.
In 1967, he was charged with disorderly conduct, throwing rocks through windows, aiding and abetting in the theft of a bicycle, breaking into a store, and breaking into a home from which he stole one box of doughnuts, one package of luncheon meat and 25 pennies.
He had a difficult time in school, failing several grades.
Williams was committed to state authorities and sent to the Hanover School for Boys in 1968.
He was released in 1971, but he pulled a false fire alarm and committed another break-in. He was committed again -- this time to what is now called the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center.
All told, Williams racked up 23 charges from 15 incidents from 1966 to 1986, not counting malicious wounding, robbery and the capital murder charge that would send him to death row.
Meanwhile, in 1973, he got married and lived in Java in Southside Virginia for three years, where he worked in tobacco fields. In 1975, he and his wife, Jennie Lee, had a daughter, Jennie. The couple separated in 1976 but never got a divorce.
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Terry Williams then moved back to Danville, where he became friends with Harris Stone. The two were drinking and fishing companions, trying their luck for catfish in the nearby Dan River, Stone's daughters, Janidean Stones and Pollie Cosby, recalled in an interview last year.
Stone died in November 1985. His body was exhumed eight months later, after Williams, a jail inmate at the time, wrote an anonymous letter to authorities confessing to the murder. An autopsy found Stone had been struck in the chest, breaking his ribs and puncturing a lung.
Williams told Pinckert that in March 1986, while he was serving 60 days in the Danville City Jail for stealing a watch and violating parole, he began to have terrifying dreams, including one about his friend, Stone.
Pinckert said Williams described to him a dream in which he struck Stone with a gardening tool, cupped Stone's blood to his face "like a werewolf" and then picked up Stone's wallet.
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Pinckert concluded that Williams suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome because of his mother's drinking while he was in her womb.
Fetal alcohol syndrome, "in my opinion, if pursued diligently by trial counsel during the trial for capital murder, would have created significant opportunities for creating doubts in the minds of the jurors on the reliability of [his] confession . . . and the appropriateness of a sentence of death," Pinckert said in an affidavit.
Juror David Compton said in a 1988 affidavit, "I cannot think of anything good about Mr. Williams that was brought out during the sentencing portion of the trial. If there had been, I assume that Mr. Williams' trial attorneys would have presented it."
"I certainly would have considered very seriously evidence that Mr. Williams was married and had a child," he said. "I think it might have made a difference in the jury's decision to impose the death sentence."
Juror Melvin K. Wiles said in an affidavit, "I believe the jury only saw one dimension of Terry Williams, as a human being who committed crimes."
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Information also seemed to be lacking in other areas of the case.
In one of the appeals affidavits, Dr. Kris Sperry, the deputy chief medical examiner for the Fulton County, Ga., Medical Examiner's Office, who inspected some of the autopsy material, came to a different conclusion from that reached in Virginia after the exhumation.
"It is impossible to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Stone's death was the result of a blow from a mattock," he said.
Sperry said the pierced lung could have been the result of defects caused by embalming. The cracked ribs could have been the result of an alcohol-induced fall, he said.
Indeed, the physician who performed the Virginia autopsy, Dr. David Oxley, said in a deposition that had he been asked during the trial whether something else could have caused Stone's injury, he would have said that "it is entirely conceivable that Mr. Stone sustained his injuries by falling against a sharp, stationary object."
The jury also did not know that a neighbor of Stone, John Whittle, saw Stone fall on some concrete steps earlier the same evening Stone died. Whittle helped Stone, who complained of pain in his side, to his bed.
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The lead attorney representing Williams was E.L. Motley, who now lives in Richmond. He said yesterday, "With the case still pending, I don't think it's appropriate to comment."
But in an affidavit last year, Motley said he planned to argue to the jury that it should show mercy because Williams had come forward and admitted the crime when Stone's death wasn't even considered a homicide.
"I did not know of other mitigating evidence," he said. He said he asked Williams and his family for help but they were unable to come up with much useable evidence. He put Williams' mother and two neighbors on the stand.
Motley said he did not know he had access to Williams' records held by the Department of Youth and Family Services or to Danville Public School records. He also did not know that Department of Corrections records showed that Williams had a good prison record.
"Finally, while I was aware Terry had a wife and daughter, I did not inform the jury of this fact, nor did I call them as witnesses, although they were willing to be called," Motley said in the affidavit.
"In retrospect," he said, "I think that their testimony, especially the testimony of an 11-year-old girl about her love for her father and his devotion and his feelings toward her, would have been compelling to the jury in their sentencing deliberations."
Stone is now buried in a small cemetery off state Route 40 in Gretna. Williams lives on death row at the Sussex I State Prison near Waverly, where he is permitted out of his cell five hours a day to perform custodial work.