Wounded in head, man feels doubly victimized

March 31, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Ginger Williams was enjoying a sound sleep the night her son got shot. It was in April 1993 and sometimes her life seems split in two -- marked by that evening's sleep, by that last moment of innocence when she laid her head upon her pillow. She awoke hours later with a neighbor pounding frantically on her door and shouting that Mrs. Williams' 23-year-old son, Reynold, had just been shot in the head.

"It has been surreal, horrible, unbelievable. It's been like a nightmare," says Mrs. Williams, groping for words to express herself. She looks at me and shakes her head again, overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all.

"It is unbelievable," she says again. "You can't believe -- nobody can begin to believe or understand what it is like unless you've gone through it; although, heaven forbid that anybody should have to go through what we've been through."

Actually -- and I do not mean to sound cold -- much of Mrs. Williams' story should be very familiar. Our society manufactures crime victims with machine-like efficiency. Every evening, it seems, we are confronted by the horror of bereavement. It is as if we are at war; at war with ourselves.

Reynold Williams had just graduated from Ohio State University and was working at a local insurance agency when he went to a movie with some friends. The group was walking toward a bus stop when another group of young men drove by and opened fire with at least one automatic weapon. Later, police would report that the street was littered with shell casings. A bullet hit Reynold in the middle of the forehead and left shattered fragments embedded in the brain. He broke a couple of front teeth when he fell to the ground. As he lay there, somebody stole his watch and sports shoes.

Surgeons at Shock Trauma operated for six hours. Reynold was left disabled by his wounds, subject to seizures, a slight stutter, short-term memory loss. Still, he is lucky to be alive.

But this is where the nightmare kicks into high gear: Because the Williams family found that nobody cares. Reynold Williams lost his job, but apparently had not been working long enough to qualify for disability insurance. The state established a Criminal Injuries Compensation Board in the 1970s, but that board's funding and staff have been cut so dramatically that there is ``TC three-year backlog of cases. Meanwhile, the bill for Reynold's treatment has passed $15,000 and is still climbing.

Mrs. Williams is most bitter at the way the family has been treated by the city state's attorney's office. A 23-year-old man has been charged with the shooting and will go on trial April 14. But the case already has been postponed several times and the family says it was never notified. And police and prosecutors have warned that the defendant might get five to seven years in prison at most.

Mr. Williams declines to talk about his own feelings regarding the case. He told his mother that he is "sick and tired of the whole thing and doesn't want to talk about it any more than necessary."

Says Mrs. Williams: "Listen, I know we have a problem with gun violence all over the country. I know prosecutors are overworked. But we found no compassion, no consideration at all. They never called us. They would never let us know when a case has been postponed. And the thing I resent the most is the automatic assumption that because my son is a black male, somehow he is supposed to get shot, somehow this is not that big a deal."

Supposedly, this is an era of enlightened sensitivity toward crime victims. Baltimore State's Attorney Stu Simms notes that shortly after he assumed office, he established a family bereavement center to counsel the families of homicide victims. And his office has a victims assistance unit assigned to smooth over communications problems.

But Mrs. Williams' sense that her family has been victimized twice -- by the perpetrator and by the criminal justice system -- does not appear to be unique. Perhaps, such feelings are inherent in being a victim: You feel so angry and hurt that nobody can heal the wound. Only time.

Or perhaps it is as crime victims often say: Life has become a battlefield and nobody is taking time to tend to our wounded.

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