Man convicted of murder a third time

Appellate courts overturned guilty verdicts twice before

October 25, 2011|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

For the third time in a dozen years, a Baltimore jury has convicted Tony Williams in the 1998 shooting death of his fiancee, finding him guilty of first-degree murder and using a handgun in a crime of violence.

But no one can say yet whether the ruling, handed down Tuesday, will stick.

Two earlier convictions — along with two life sentences — were overturned by state appellate courts, which found that prosecutors and police withheld significant information during separate trials conducted eight years apart.

And Williams' long-time attorney, Robert Biddle, plans to appeal the verdict in this trial as well. He declined to say what basis he might use, however, saying it was "too early" to discuss.

In the meantime, families on the two sides hope for opposite things. Williams' mother wants another verdict vacated, while the sister of Dana Drake prays that this conviction is the one that will finally hold.

"It's been a long emotional road," said Wanda Drake Waters.

Drake was a 33-year-old nurse and mother of two young girls in February 1998, when she was shot twice outside the apartment she and Williams shared in the 800 block of Dartmouth Road in Northeast Baltimore. She died, slumped in a stairwell.

Williams, then a 30-year-old truck driver, called police about 4:30 a.m., according to court records, and said he found his fiancee murdered. He claimed that Drake had a new boyfriend who threatened to kill her, but police didn't believe the story and charged Williams.

Williams was held in a cell with another man, who had been arrested on drug charges. The man would later become a key trial witness, telling a jury in 1999 that Williams had confessed to killing Drake, the mother of his child, because he was deeply in debt and wanted to collect $100,000 from a life insurance policy.

The jury convicted Williams, who was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years. Jurors did not know that the jailhouse witness was a paid police informant, who repeatedly told on others for cash and leniency in his own criminal cases — which he was hoping to again receive by testifying against Williams.

Prosecutors in the case were unaware of the man's past, though at least one person in the State's Attorney's Office knew and never alerted others. The Court of Special Appeals found that the omission compromised Williams' defense, and overturned the conviction.

"Cross-examination would certainly have been more effective if [defense attorneys] had been aware that [the informant] was asking a judge for consideration for his testimony in this case," judges wrote in a lengthy 2003 opinion.

The next trial took four years to come to court, and by then, another key witness had died. Brenda O'Carroll testified during the first trial that she saw Williams shoot at Drake and then jump into his car and drive away "like Speedy Gonzales."

She also told an officer that Williams "ain't a nice person" and she hoped authorities would "go ahead and fry him."

Prosecutors wanted to show her recorded testimony to the new set of jurors, and a judge allowed it, despite a revelation in a pre-trial hearing that O'Carroll might have been legally blind when she claimed to have seen the shooting.

She told a detective that her illness affected her vision, information which he neglected to share until February 2007. The court chastised the officer, but pushed ahead with the trial, and Williams was again convicted in April of that year.

He was sentenced to life plus five years that time, and again pursued a reversal, which the Court of Appeals granted in October 2010.

"We hold that although petitioner may have had an opportunity to cross-examine Ms. O'Carroll at the first trial, it was not an adequate one, because he had not been informed that Ms. O'Carroll was 'legally blind,'" the judges wrote.

The third trial kicked off this month, with prosecutors bringing in a new jailhouse informant — a former gang member who testified Friday that Williams again had made a cellblock confession.

The witness was repeatedly warned against talking about Williams' criminal record, but violated the command at least twice, which could become part of the next appeal.

Williams' mother, Deborah Williams, said her son is innocent and had been convicted by "stoolies" and liars who got caught up in their own stories. There was no forensic evidence against Williams.

But Waters, Drake's sister, knows in her heart that justice was done. "I'm just glad that the truth is coming out," she said.

Sentencing is set for Dec. 6.


Feb. 21, 1998 — Dana Drake is shot to death around 3 a.m., struck once in the head and once in the back. An hour and a half later, Tony Williams calls police to report the shooting, claiming he found her dead in a stairwell. Police arrest him that day.

Feb. 10, 1999 — Williams is convicted in Baltimore Circuit Court of first-degree murder and of using a handgun in a crime of violence. He was later sentenced to consecutive terms of life plus 20 years.

Sept. 4, 2003 — The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland overturns Williams' conviction, because prosecutors did not disclose that a key witness was a paid police informant hoping to get leniency in a drug case by testifying.

March, April 2007 — Williams is tried and convicted a second time of the same crimes. He receives a life sentence, plus five years.

Oct. 27, 2010 — The Court of Appeals of Maryland reverses the second conviction, ruling that videotaped testimony of a dead witness compromised the defense.

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