Today Willie Clark was found guilty in the murder of former Bronco defensive back Darrent Williams who was killed in a drive by shooting January 1, 2007. After deliberating for a day and a half the jury finally reached its verdict.
I can say from experience it is not easy to convict someone of first-degree murder unless all of the evidence lines up. In this case a small but very relevant fact involved a deal in which the prosecution’s key witness agreed to testify for the prosecution in exchange for a sentence reduction from potentially life to 5 years.
Convicting a defendant of first-degree murder is difficult and rightfully so. As a result, deals are common place, in part, because the jury vote needs to be unanimous. And deals usually involve criminals because bad guys tend to hang out with other bad guys.
Several years ago in California I was empaneled on a jury in the case of two defendants who gunned down the mother of two in front of her daughter at a daycare center. It was a premeditated hit.
Within a day of beginning the trial the cases were separated and we the jury went on to convict the remaining defendant of first-degree murder. We did not know why the cases were separated at the time. What we did find out over the course of the trial, however, was that the defendant was the wheel man and not the shooter.
Under criminal law a conviction of first-degree murder needs to include intent. “Special circumstances” is a provision in certain states under which if they are shown to exist the court can impose more severe sentences, including the death penalty.
This was a “special circumstance” case and the prosecution was asking for the death penalty for both defendants. After conviction we proceeded to the penalty phase of the trial. We were provided very specific instructions by the presiding judge as to the threshold that had to be met for “special circumstances” to exist.
After an agonizing few days we determined “special circumstances” were present. As foreman of the jury I will never forget the moment of reading the verdict and the individual polling of the jury.
Fast forward six months later. I received a letter from the presiding judge who thanked me for my service and offered the final disposition of the case. He said that although we had cleared the way for the death penalty to be imposed his sentencing decision was life in prison without the possibility of parole. His decision was based on the unknown fact at the time that as the trial began the shooter plead guilty and agreed to testify, if needed, in exchange for the lesser sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The judge did not believe that though convicted with “special circumstances” the wheel man should receive a harsher sentence.
I relate this story because our criminal system is not perfect. Deals are made if the case can be strengthened as it was against Willie Clark. Nevertheless our criminal system still remains the most imperfect perfect system available.
Update: After the conviction of Willie Clark the District Attorney said that sentence reductions of 180 years collectively were negotiated through plea bargains in exchange for testimony.