The next hearing in the Ashley Williams case is scheduled for 9 a.m., June 4, Room 302, in the John Marshall Courts Building, 400 N. 9th St. in downtown Richmond. If Williams' request to be represented by the counsel of her choice is turned down, her case will be returned to Judge Taylor, for sentencing. See detailed update on this case below:
Richmond's Ashley Williams case at crucial juncture
By Phil Wilayto
RICHMOND, VA – The May 18 court hearing for Ashley Williams, the young Richmond mother fighting to retract her guilty plea in connection with the “starvation” death of her 2-year-old son DeSean, lasted all of two minutes. The result, which has not been reported by other local media, brings the case to a new and critical juncture.
In the latest twist in a saga that is raising serious questions about the fairness of the Richmond courts system, Circuit Court Judge Richard T. Taylor declined to rule on a request by Williams to be represented by Pauline M. Ewald, the outspoken court-appointed attorney whom Taylor had removed from the case 14 months ago. Taylor had previously stated that he would not preside over any case in which Ewald, who had been mounting a serious defense for Williams, is an attorney.
Judge Taylor is African-American, as is Williams. Ewald is of European descent.
Instead, Taylor referred the motion to the next judge in the court's rotation schedule. If that judge allows Ewald to represent Williams, Taylor stated he would remove himself from the case altogether. If the request is denied, the case will go back to Taylor, for sentencing.
A hearing on the motion has been scheduled for June 4.
Taylor did not announce his decision in the courtroom, which included 15 Williams supporters. Instead, in an apparently unusual move, he announced that copies of his decision could be obtained from the court clerk's office, “in a few minutes,” and then abruptly left the courtroom.
Williams, 27, of Richmond's working-class Fulton neighborhood, was arrested on July 6, 2009, and charged with felony child neglect and second-degree murder. When DeSean died exactly two months earlier, he had weighed just 14 pounds. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, a boy DeSean's age typically weighs between 23.75 and 34 pounds.
Basically, Williams was accused of allowing the DeSean to starve to death.
On Jan. 11, 2010, the charges were nol prossed (withdrawn by the prosecution), because the medical examiner's office had not yet issued an opinion as to the cause of death, and was not likely to issue one before Williams' right-to-a-speedy-trial date was to expire.
In other words, Williams had been indicted for murder before the state even knew why her child died.
When the autopsy report was completed, it listed the manner of death as “inconclusive.” And yet, on June 13, 2010, the charges against Williams were reinstated.
Meanwhile, Williams' other three children – all of whom were healthy – were taken from her home and put into foster care.
In Virginia, court-appointed public defenders assigned felony cases are paid just $445, the lowest rate in the entire country. As a result, public defenders typically do not spend a lot of time, energy or other resources on their clients.
In contrast, to refute the claim of child neglect, Ewald had arranged for several medical experts to testify in Williams' defense. These included Dr. Cyril H. Wecht of Pittsburgh, a nationally known forensic pathologist.
After examining the autopsy report, Dr. Wecht concluded that there was no evidence of neglect or abuse. Rather, he found, the child most likely had died from DiGeorges Syndrome, a genetic disorder that prevents the body from properly digesting food, resulting in a loss of weight so severe that death can result.
As reported in the current issue of the Black-owned Richmond Free Press, Williams' three sisters also have children who exhibit symptoms similar to DiGeorges, a fact that would seem to support Wecht's conclusion.
Further, Williams had been regularly taking DeSean to a medical doctor, trying to find out what was wrong with her child. At the time of the final visit, about a month before his death, DeSean had weighed just 18 pounds, raising the question of the competency of the medical care he was receiving, not whether his mother was properly caring for him.
But in March 2011 – before Ewald could present her evidence in court, Judge Taylor had her removed from the case. The reason given was complaints by prosecutors and Ewald's co-counsel, Devika E. Davis, that Ewald had offered Dr. Wecht inappropriate financial inducements for his testimony. However, Ewald has produced an affidavit from Dr. Wecht stating he had not been offered any such inducement.
After Ewald was removed as Williams' co-counsel, Davis reportedly persuaded Williams to plead guilty to the charge of involuntary manslaughter, without going to trial. In Virginia, involuntary manslaughter carries a penalty of between five and 40 years in prison.
Davis later was quoted in the Free Press as saying she did not want to put Dr. Wecht on the stand because “His opinion, in my view, was not based on science. The scientific evidence was questionable.”
Dr. Wecht, the former medical examiner for the Pittsburg area, is also a former president of the American Academy of Forensic Science. He was selected as a forensic consultant for the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office in regard to the 1968 Robert F. Kennedy assassination. He currently heads the board of trustees of the American Board of Legal Medicine.
After Williams pleaded guilty, on Nov. 28, 2011, the next step would have been sentencing. But on April 17, 2012 – the day before Williams was to be sentenced, King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP, along with one of Williams' sisters, visited Williams at the Richmond City Jail. During this visit, Williams said she wanted to withdraw her guilty plea, have the case go to trial and be represented by Ewald.
At the court hearing the next day, Williams made her requests to Judge Taylor, saying “I'm not guilty, and I was led to believe the guilty plea was in my best interest, but it's not.”
As she spoke, some 30 activists packed the small courtroom, including Khalfani, City Councilman Marty Jewell and former City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin, as well as members of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, the Flying Brick Library and activists with Occupy Richmond.
Also, at the hearing, Davis asked to be removed from the case, saying, without explaining her reasons, that she believed continuing to represent Williams could open her to judicial action.
Taylor removed Davis and appointed a new public defender, Cary C. Bowen, a white male.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for 9 a.m., June 4, Room 302, in the John Marshall Courts Building, 400 N. 9th St. in downtown Richmond. As stated above, if Williams' request to be represented by the counsel of her choice is turned down, her case will be returned to Judge Taylor, for sentencing.
The Defenders are urging the public to attend this critical hearing.