Former community activist sentenced to life in murder of wife

Cleaven L. Williams Jr. is admonished by judge for calling himself victim, failing to take responsibility for killing pregnant spouse in 2008

May 06, 2011|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

In the mind of Cleaven L. Williams Jr., the stabbing death of his wife on a Baltimore street was a tragedy that took place outside his control. The event, he said in court Friday, rendered him a victim, too.

In sentencing the 35-year-old defendant to life in prison, Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory admonished him to "accept 100 percent responsibility" for killing Veronica Graves Williams on Nov. 17, 2008, something he avoided doing during his trial in February and in his long statement to the court on Friday.

Nevertheless, the judge, in declining to impose a no-parole sentence, called him an intelligent man who might still make something of his life once he is released, which could occur in about 25 years. Doory also gave Williams an additional three-year term, which he will serve consecutively, on a dangerous-weapon charge.

The murder of Veronica Williams, with whom Cleaven Williams had three children and was expecting a fourth, was a stunningly public act, witnessed by several people on a North Avenue sidewalk. The stabbing ended only when a police officer who happened to be nearby fired his gun twice at the knife-wielding suspect.

"He actually calls himself a victim," prosecutor Kevin Wiggins told the court. "It's his wife's fault. She made him do it."

The Williamses' marriage had gone woefully awry in the weeks before Veronica Williams died. She had taken out a protective order against her husband after an argument became physical, and a warrant was issued charging him with assault. When he tried to surrender — just a few days before the killing — a police commander who knew him let him go because of a procedural problem with the paperwork. The defendant then wrote a letter to his wife in which he threatened to kill her, and ultimately did just that, prosecutors said, stabbing her multiple times.

Williams, who had established a business as a building contractor and was president of the Greater Greenmount Community Association, never explicitly denied killing his wife, but said he had no recollection of stabbing her. Neither did he address his guilt in a letter to this reporter after his conviction, and instead applied literary and historical allusions to his wife's death.

"I would like to take my folly, my tragedy, and use it to help someone else," he wrote on March 8 from the Baltimore Detention Center. "I mean there has to be some good that comes out of this tragedy. I'm seeing Uriah and King David, Helen of Troy, Othello and Samson and Delilah all wrapped up into my real-life tragedy."

Williams wrote that he had "suffered in silence" for more than two years since his arrest and "endured nothing but ridicule and character assassinations." He said most of the allegations about his relationship with his wife were "lies and misrepresentations," and that the whole picture did not emerge during the trial.

In court on Friday, Williams, his hands shackled to his waist, said that "no one in this courtroom can tell you that I did not love my children, or that I did not love my wife." Referring only indirectly to the killing and his conviction, repeatedly calling it "this situation" and "this tragedy," Williams said he wished that he "could take that day back" and that going to prison "was not part of my plan."

He did apologize to his children, who were not in court, "for taking someone from them they can never get back," but warned his wife's relatives sitting in the courtroom that "no one has the right to answer their questions but me." Then, as though speaking to his late wife, he said, "Buttercup, I love you forever. Lord knows I didn't plan this."

Relatives of the dead woman were unsparing. "My precious niece was hunted down like an animal and brutally murdered on the streets of Baltimore while trying to run for her life," said Janis Mathis, the eldest of the victim's aunts, who lives in North Carolina. She called the defendant a "predator and a coward" who "does not deserve to walk in society again."

Carlin Robinson, the victim's first cousin, who is taking care of the Williams children, then read aloud letters from all three of them. They condemned their father for killing their mother, whom they described in terms of yearning and great loss.

"She was the best mother I could ever have," wrote one of the children, who is 8 years old. "We were like magnets that stick together. … When I grow up, I'm going to be a super little girl, just like Mommy."

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