I like Mr. Williams
by Jamison Koehler on October 25, 2019
I drive over from court to pick up Mr. Williams. We are headed to Georgetown University where I have been invited to guest lecture. It is a graduate program, and the students watched most of our trial. The professor asked if I could come speak to the class.
It was my idea to invite Mr. Williams, and I was pleased when he immediately agreed. I figured the students would be far more interested in what he has to say. There are tons of criminal defense lawyers eager to tell their war stories. But how many people have been acquitted of a felony criminal offense? In this case, it was possession within intent to distribute – in other words, drug dealing.
I also invited the two prosecutors who opposed me but they were tied up in another trial.
Mr. Williams meets me on the corner. I ask to see his apartment. If I were to channel Sara Koenig of Serial doing her best to sound hip, this is where “it all went down.”
I follow Mr. Williams up the back staircase. I know from having watched hours upon hours of body worn camera footage that this is the route that the police took, all 12 officers charging up the stairs. At the top of the stairs, we pass where the male was stopped.
In my theory of the defense, this guy was the real dealer.
We go out into the hall and turn the corner. There at the end of the hall we see where the “woman in the pink sweater,” as she became known as trial, was standing outside the doorway to Mr. Williams’ apartment.
She was the user. The packet of heroin in her purse ties her to the digital scale with residue found in the apartment.
The metal door of Mr. Williams’ apartment is still dented from where the police used the battering ram. Mr. Williams and I laugh at how none of the officers bothered to check first to see if the door was open – they were too keen on using their handy tool.
Once we are inside Mr. Williams’ apartment, we stand in the kitchen and I play the role of the police officer who confronted him with the two vials of PCP found in his refrigerator. Mr. Williams’ subsequent statement – “if it is there, it is there” – was not allowed in at trial because Mr. Williams had not been Mirandized.
Mr. Williams tidies up and opens the window in the living room before we leave. He shows me where new furniture will go. Now that the trial is over, he can begin making life plans again.
Mr. Williams and I spent a lot of time together before and during trial, and our conversation flows easily during the car ride over to Georgetown. We talk about the Nationals and the Redskins. We talk about the trial. Like an old married couple, we are also fine with silence.
The professor kept our attendance a surprise, and the students are happy to see us when the three of us walk in. They ask good questions.
I do my best not to sound too self-congratulatory and smug. After all, if every decision you made after a loss is the wrong one, every decision you made after a victory was all part of your grand scheme.
We begin with Mr. Williams. The professor walks him through the process – being arrested and held in custody, the arraignment, facing trial, etc. I do not remember my initial interactions with Mr. Williams, and I am pleased to hear that I sounded confident in our case from the very beginning. I am also interested in Mr. Williams’ responses to the questions. In some cases, these are things he and I never talked about. For example, when asked about the prospect of spending the foreseeable future in jail, his primary concern was about losing his apartment.
The professor asks me to discuss some of the issues that came up at trial — constructive possession, aiding and abetting – but no matter how interesting I myself find these issues, I can feel the students’ interest flagging. The professor and I both push the discussion back to Mr. Williams.
One of the students wants to know how Mr. Williams was able to sit so impassively throughout the testimony. Weren’t you get angry at being falsely accused? Mr. Williams and I laugh about this. He is gracious about not pointing the finger at me but this was advice I had given him: Don’t roll your eyes or pound the table. Try not to react at all.
That is good advice when you are in front of a judge. Maybe it is not such great advice, as it turns out, when you are in front of a jury.
Having entered our courtroom two minutes before opening statements began, the students had no idea of how much time and work went into the case before the actual trial. After all, in the interest of keeping the story-line moving, the trials on TV seem to begin almost immediately.
Mr. Williams’ case was dismissed after the police officer failed to appear at the initial preliminary hearing. It was then re-opened. We did the preliminary hearing. There were a number of status hearings at which Mr. Williams considered a plea, followed by trial readiness hearings. The trial was continued twice – once at the government’s request and then again at ours. During the week of the actual trial, we then waited three days, first for a judge, then for a jury, then again for a judge.
The life of a criminal defense lawyer is sitting in a courtroom waiting for your case to be called.
The students tell me that I sounded clear and confident throughout trial. One commented that the prosecutors and I seemed to be on good terms and that I was respectful of the police officers who testified. All of this is gratifying for me to hear. Fire and brimstone is not my style. Besides, most of what the officers testified to was consistent with my theory of the defense: Yes, there were drugs being sold out of Mr. Williams’ apartment. But he wasn’t the dealer.
We talk about the martial arts principle of using an opponent’s momentum against him/her. We talk about trying to turn a weakness into a strength.
The students did not like one of the officers – they felt he was evasive during cross-examination. But they found the government’s drug expert very persuasive. He did not appear to have a vested interest in the outcome of the case. One of the students asked about the racial composition of the jury.
Although the student must have found my response to this question wholly unsatisfactory, Mr. Williams and I did talk about our strategy for picking the jury. We ranked each juror on a scale from 1 to 10 and then compared our answers. Mr. Williams was far more charitable than I was. We laugh about the well-meaning white woman whose complaints about the racial injustice of drug cases only served to have herself “struck for cause” by the judge.
It was difficult, Mr. Williams told the students, to have his fate put into the hands of 12 strangers. But he was satisfied with the panel we ended up with, and he expressed no bitterness with regard to the process itself.
Liking a client is a bonus, not a necessity. That said, I liked Mr. Williams.
Both prosecutors came over to congratulate him after the case was over.
We saw on the body worn camera how, when confronted that day by police outside his apartment, Mr. Williams reacted with grace and dignity. He was equally soft-spoken and calm when put into handcuffs. This is the same man who never once complained during the endless hours we spent in the courthouse waiting for our case to be called. Sometimes simple acceptance is what it comes to.
The students applaud, and Mr. Williams and I get up from our chairs. We are both old men who need to shake the stiffness out from our legs. We head back across the campus to my car.
Later, I pull over outside Mr. Williams’ apartment – the address of which will forever be ingrained in my mind – and the two of us regard each other for just a moment before he gets out of the car.
Mr. Williams promises to stay in touch. Maybe he will.