When Richard Alex Williams walked out of the Sacramento County jail Tuesday after more than 19 years in custody, he still had trouble processing the fact that he was a free man, that he no longer was a convicted murderer.
“The first thing I did, I went and bought a Sprite and some gum and said, ‘I’m going to sit here and think about this, soak up the traffic, soak up the lights.’ Because, when you’re locked up, you’re away from so much normal stuff that goes on in society, it becomes un-normal to you. So I had to soak it up again.”
Williams talked to The Sacramento Bee on Wednesday afternoon in the offices of his defense attorney, Victor Haltom.
Now 37, Williams was 18 the last time he walked anywhere as a free man.
That was Aug. 12, 1996, when he learned there was a warrant for his arrest and turned himself in for questioning in a south Sacramento murder case.
Thus began a remarkable odyssey through the legal and prison systems that saw him endure three separate trials.
The first ended with a deadlocked jury in early 1998. Later that year, a second jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and attempted murder.
A third jury came back Monday afternoon with an acquittal on the same charges, after a 30-minute closing argument Williams made in his own defense on his final bid for freedom.
“He felt like giving his own closing was powerful,” Haltom said during the interview in his office. “Here’s the prosecutor, who puts up a slick, nice PowerPoint presentation, and then Richard comes up with a couple notepads.
“And the jury was looking more and paying more attention to Richard than they were to the prosecutor. Just hearing from him was a big deal, probably the turning point of the trial.”
How Williams got to a stroll through a Walmart on Wednesday morning with his son, Isaiah, 19, to buy socks and underwear, without wearing an orange jumpsuit and waist chains is a tangled web of contradictory evidence and claims of racial bias that turned the case on its head.
Williams was at a state prison in Los Angeles County doing life without parole in June of last year when U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton threw out his convictions and sentence, ruling that the second trial was tainted by racism. Karlton, who has since died, concluded that the prosecutor was motivated by race when he used a peremptory strike to keep the only African American eligible to serve on the jury off the panel. Williams is African American, and the jury that deadlocked in the first trial included two African Americans who voted for acquittal.
A federal appellate court upheld Karlton, and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office elected to retry Williams.
Today, Williams is dreaming of going to college, perhaps to study the law. He betrays no sense of anger or bitterness as he discusses in a low, even voice the circumstances that led to a prison cell.
“I’d say by Year Five of me being incarcerated, I let the anger go, because the anger was holding me back,” he said. “I saw how I wasn’t making any progress in my life, so I decided I wasn’t taking the steps I needed to make a positive life. And I had ample time on my hands to learn.”
Williams began a quest to educate himself. He read history books, studied copyright law, read law books and took computer courses.
By the time Karlton ordered the state to retry him or release him, he was ready to go back to court, and he was determined to do it on his own terms.
When prosecutors came to him with a deal – 25 years to life – he didn’t hesitate to reject it: “I can’t plead to something I didn’t do,” he said.
Instead, as his new trial began in September and moved forward, Williams decided he needed to be the one to plead his case to the jurors, to look them in the eyes and convince them he was not guilty.
“The more I spoke and the more I looked at everybody, you could see people’s faces looking at me and actually starting to listen to me,” he said. “There were no looks of people being judgmental or anything like that.”
He was done in 30 minutes, and then the agony began. The jury took five days to reach a verdict, and as Williams waited in his jail cell, each night he considered what questions the jurors sent to the judge, what each note from the deliberation room might mean.
“I became more and more confident as the days went on,” he said. “They’re actually talking about my case, they’re not jumping to a conclusion. So, by Friday, when they didn’t have a verdict I felt pretty confident.”
But by the time the jury came back into Sacramento Superior Court Judge Helena R. Gweon’s courtroom Monday afternoon, Williams was not so confident.
“They sent two guards to get me instead of one, so that made me kind of nervous,” he said.
And the jury’s questions to the judge about the difference between first-degree murder and second-degree murder didn’t help his confidence.
“I thought, ‘OK, they’re going to convict me of one of those,’ ” he said.
Instead, the 12 came back with an acquittal, and Williams broke down in the courtroom before he was returned to jail for what he assumed would be a routine trip to get his belongings together and process him out.
But the waiting began anew as no one came to take him out of his cell.
“When it was after midnight, that’s when I started panicking, asking the officers, ‘Hey I was acquitted last night, why am I still here? What’s the problem?’ ”
The problem was the jail was waiting for state corrections officials to lift a hold the jailers said the state had on him. Corrections officials said Williams was still a state prisoner and, initially, their plan was to send him back to the prison in Los Angeles County and release him from there, a process they said that could legally take up to seven days.
Williams finally emerged from the jail into the arms of family members late Tuesday afternoon and settled in at his aunt’s south Sacramento home, where he feasted on Kentucky Fried Chicken, crab legs and Cinnabons from the Arden Fair mall shop.
He went to his brother’s barber shop for a haircut Wednesday morning, where a former cellmate met up with him to laugh about all the times Williams told him in prison that he was an innocent man.
“And he was like, ‘You did it, you didn’t give up. You really did it,’ ” Williams joyfully recounted.
Now, Williams is trying to reset his life. He wants to go fishing, spend time with his family, and has promised to take his grandmother to Alaska to see the northern lights. He plans to move to Los Angeles to be with his mother, and he says he has a vow: “Not dwell on the past, just cherish what we’ve got right now. It was a long fight, but everybody hung in there. It was rough on the entire family, not just me, but we made it through as a family.”