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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Donald Williams Jr.: A Man Unfit For Civilized Society

     Donald Williams, Jr., born and raised in a crime-ridden Philadelphia neighborhood to parents who physically abused him and spent their welfare money on crack, murdered a man in 1994. The 20-year-old with a low I.Q. and no idea how to make his way in civilized society, had assaulted his former girlfriend, then killed her boyfriend. Convicted of third-degree murder in 1996, the judge sentenced Williams to ten years in prison. (In Pennsylvania, third-degree murder convictions are almost always the result of plea deals.)

     Early in 2009, Williams began dating a woman from Reading, Pennsylvania named Maria Serrano. In May of that year, after letting him move in with her, Serrano kicked the 35-year-old out of her house. The infuriated ex-con took up residence in a halfway house in Reading.

     On June 25, 2009, Williams returned to Serrano's home. That night he raped her. But he didn't leave it at that. While she took a shower, he stabbed her with a screwdriver. Williams then threw the 49-year-old woman down her basement steps, doused her with gasoline, lit her up and left her for dead.

     To the 911 dispatcher, Serrano screamed, "Oh my God, I am bleeding! Hurry up! There is a fire, I am burning all over the place! There is a fire in the house! Hurry up!" Paramedics rushed the badly burned woman to the Lehigh Valley Burn Center near Allentown, Pennsylvania. On August 8, 2009, she died of her injuries.

     A Berks County prosecutor charged Williams, who was already in custody on the rape, arson, and aggravated assault charges, with first-degree murder. The prosecutor said he would seek the death penalty in this case.

     The Williams trial got underway on September 12, 2013 before Berks County Judge Scott D. Keller and a jury of seven women and five men. When Assistant District Attorney Dennis J. Skayhan rested his case, there was no doubt who had tortured and murdered Maria Serrano. Before she died, the victim had identified Williams as her attacker. A state forensic expert had connected the defendant to the rape though his DNA.

     Public defender Paul Yessler put Williams on the stand. The defendant did not deny that he had raped, stabbed, and set fire to the woman he had thrown down a flight of stairs. In a bold and obvious lie that did not go over well with the jurors, Williams claimed to have "flipped-out" that night after catching Serrano having sex with his younger brother.

     Prosecutor Skayhan, as part of his closing argument, played the victim's 911 tape. Public defender Yessler, in his closing statement, emphasized the defendant's 83 I.Q., his ghetto upbringing, and his childhood abuse. In referring to Williams, Yessler said, "This guy did not have a chance from the get-go."

     Six days after the opening of the trial, the jury, after deliberating six hours, found Williams guilty of rape, arson, and first-degree murder. The defendant showed no emotion at the reading of the verdict.

     Because the prosecution sought the death penalty in this case, the judge scheduled a two-day sentence hearing. In arguing for the death sentence, prosecutor Skayhan focused on how the tortured victim had died a slow, agonizing death. Public defender Yessler, in pushing for life, highlighted the defendant's low I.Q. and inability to control his impulses.

     The jury, after deliberating two hours on the sentencing issue, informed Judge Keller that a consensus could not be reached. The judge had no choice but to sentence Donald Williams to life in prison without parole.

     In speaking directly to the convicted murderer, Judge Keller made no secret of where he stood on the question of punishment in this case. "You deserved the death penalty," he said without trying to disguise his disgust at the jury's performance. "It was torture in any man or woman's world. You inflicted a considerable amount of pain and suffering on a victim which is unnecessary, heinous, atrocious, and cruel."

     While few would disagree with the judge's analysis of this murderer, William's low I.Q. would probably have kept him out of the death chamber anyway. Appellate judges do not like the idea of executing stupid people. (In my opinion, many low I.Q. defendants are simply good at playing dumb.)


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