Despite knowing he would be arrested as a result, the father of a convicted murderer came to court Tuesday to ask for mercy for his son, who could face the death penalty after being found guilty earlier this month of gunning down two people, including a child, in 2013.
Darnell Williams Sr., 49, told the Alameda County jury charged with recommending a sentence for his son that he had not been a good father. He was locked up more than a dozen times, was in a prison gang called the Black Guerrilla Family, and has been addicted to drugs, including crack cocaine. He dropped out of high school after 10th grade.
The elder Williams, who is currently on parole, said he wanted to share “anything I can say that could save my son. I’m here to see and apologize to my son… for not being a good dad. And I was a drug addict and I stayed in prison.”
He said he missed his son’s birth because he was “on drugs real bad,” and regretted missing his son’s life and his football games.
“I never wanted [him] to be nothing like me,” he said.
The elder Williams said he expected to be taken into custody — on a warrant for a parole violation — after his testimony. He was on the stand for less than 15 minutes. After he stepped down, he looked at his son and mouthed the words, “Love you, man.” Officers from the district attorney’s office took the elder Williams into custody outside the courtroom after he hugged his brother, who had testified earlier in the day.
According to prosecutor John Brouhard, the elder Williams also played a pivotal role in a robbery and shooting in Berkeley in 2009 that resulted in the incarceration of both Darnell Jr. and his father. The younger Williams was 18 at the time and had only recently been released from a three-year term with the California Youth Authority. He is now 25.
Brouhard said the elder Williams had handed his son a gun and ordered him to shoot a childhood friend of the teenager’s, who had reportedly raped a young women both boys both knew. (Brouhard declined Tuesday to question the elder Williams after his brief examination by the defense.)
According to Deborah Levy, one of the younger Williams’ two court-appointed attorneys, he took responsibility for some of the more serious actions in that case so his father could avoid a 20-year sentence and get a lighter penalty.
Psychologist: “He would ask the therapist to pretend that she was his mother”
Most of the adults in the younger Williams’ life were felons or had been to jail, testified Gretchen White, a forensic psychologist who is an expert in what has been described as psychosocial development — the internal and external factors that contribute to a person’s psychological growth.
White said both of Williams’ parents had been in and out of custody since he was a child, which led to “a great deal of shame” as well as the modeling of that behavior. His uncles, too, were locked up, including one for voluntary manslaughter. Another uncle, a crystal meth addict, took him on his first burglary, in Berkeley, when he was still a youth, according to testimony this week.
There were so many people in the family who were felons or had “significant histories” of being in prison or jail, White said, “it almost becomes normative to a child as he’s growing up.”
Read complete coverage of the case.
She said the younger Williams had also grown up in his father’s shadow, constantly hearing as a child about his dad’s criminal exploits and reputation, and being teased about it and challenged by others because of it.
There were multiple references in court by Williams’ other attorney, Darryl Billups, to a former Oakland gang known as Funktown and its leader Harvey Whisenton. Billups did not explicitly ask if the elder Williams brothers were part of the gang, which was active in the 70s and 80s, but he did suggest a connection.
White said she has spent 130 hours working on the case since Levy contacted her to do so in January 2014. (Her hourly rate is $275.) As part of that review, she conducted numerous interviews and reviewed extensive documentation from the younger Williams’ institutional history.
From as early as 7, she said, he was struggling with difficult emotions. White described the devastation Williams felt as a result of his mother’s repeated returns to custody despite her promises to “always be there” for him. His mother spent a combined 8.5 years in custody, during various periods, for a variety of fraud cases and post-release violations from when Williams was 5 until he was 18 or 19.
Williams’ own temperament was also an issue, said White. She described what she believed had been untreated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, as well as other behavioral problems from a very young age. Williams’ mother testified Tuesday she had decided not to put him on Ritalin, which had been prescribed, because she did not believe in it.
“He was so out of control that anything that had a chance of helping would have been the best thing to do,” said White, adding that she thought his mother’s choice had been “wrong.”
White said, after speaking with Williams multiple times and reviewing his history, she did not believe he has any sort of serious mental illness, though he has suffered from anxiety, depression, stress and ADHD.
Williams was first sent to counseling, through Berkeley Mental Health, as a Berkeley Unified student at age 7. White described Williams at that time, according to files she reviewed, as a “stressed and anxious little boy” who would get “very upset and very angry” when anyone tried to ask him about his mother or her absence.
He told that first therapist, according to his case notes, that he was afraid he was crazy, bad, ugly and stupid. He said he wanted to kill himself by stabbing himself in the heart.
White also described Williams at that time as “needy.”
“He would ask the therapist to pretend that she was his mother, pretend that she was a ‘nice mother’ to him,” White testified. But when the therapist would try to ask him about his mom, he would jump around, punch a punching bag and start “turning flips” as a way of acting out.
There was a playhouse in the therapist’s office, according to the file, and Williams would run into it, saying it was prison. He would ask how you get out of prison and said it was a “bad place to be,” White said. In sessions during another period of therapy a couple years later, he would repeatedly fall to the ground and ask the therapist to help him get up.
“He wanted someone to take care of him,” White said. “‘If I say I’m hurt, will somebody be there to help me? … He was acting things out as children often do in play therapy.'”
The psychologist said Williams “idolized” his mother, and would refer to her as “wifey.” He’d tell his friends he would never get married because he was already married to his mom. White said it’s not that unusual for a 4- or 5-year-old child to say things like that. But Williams was doing it when he was a teenager.
When he would play football, he’d tell his coach he wouldn’t go onto the field until his mom showed up, and asked her to wear his jersey to his games. He’d give her the vast majority of his monthly allowance and tell her to get manicures. When she got migraines, he would rub her temples. White described it as an “unusually close bond.”
Williams was “somebody who was just a very, very needy child who, even as an adolescent, hadn’t gotten over a 5- or 6-year-old’s need for their mom,” said White.
And his mother, Sheila Smith, also needed him. Said White: “I’ll just say… she was very appreciative of compliments and attention.”
White testified for about an hour Tuesday and is expected to resume that testimony Wednesday morning. She is slated to be the final witness for the defense. After closing arguments, the jury is set to deliberate to recommend a sentence of either death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Mother: “He’s always been a mama’s boy”
Smith herself, who was born and raised in Berkeley and attended Berkeley High, testified earlier in the day Tuesday. She described growing up in a strict home where she would get spankings as punishment. There was an emphasis on education, as well as on morals and values. Her father served in the military before working for nearly 30 years for a construction company that built mausoleums. He retired from that but is still working.
When Smith was a teenager, her mother became addicted to pain pills and later crack. After attacking Smith’s father at least once with a knife, they separated and she became homeless for a period. She was killed two years ago when she was struck from behind by a drunk driver in Stockton, Smith said.
Smith went to a long list of colleges before ultimately getting a degree in business administration. When she was in her 20s, she began getting into trouble for forgery and check fraud. She met Darnell’s father — whom she ultimately married — through his younger brother when she was a teenager. The elder Williams was locked up in Folsom at the time. She sent him her photograph and received a letter back. They corresponded by mail until his release. When she was 17, she got pregnant with Chastity, her first child. She had her son several years later.
Smith said her former husband’s family was very different from hers. His father had never been around. His mother had at one time been a heroin addict who was “a nice woman in her own way,” but was also “bitter” and “crazy,” Smith said. She once spit on Smith when they were living together in Long Beach.
Smith also recalled how, before they split up, when the elder Williams would come home from prison, he would sell everything in their home from diapers to his wedding ring to the “clothes off his back” to get money to buy drugs. He missed his son’s birth because he was high, she added, though he did check himself into a clinic the next day to try to get help.
After she left him for another man, there was also tension. She said the elder Williams once kidnapped the children at gunpoint on Christmas while her new boyfriend — who testified last week — was babysitting them.
When her kids were young, she moved around, living in Long Beach, Sacramento and Modesto. She described a number of financial fraud and forgery cases, and incidents of parole or probation violation, that sent her back to jail and prison over the years.
In 1996, she said, the children were placed into separate foster homes in Southern California due to her incarceration. Her son later told her his foster mother had beaten him. His grandfather, William Smith, was able to move the children to Berkeley after six months and ultimately adopted them.
In the years that followed, Smith said she made her children her priority when she was not locked up. Because of her parole rules, she had to live at times in Stanislaus County — where she had committed her crimes — but she said she would drive to Berkeley every day to cook for the children and help them with homework.
She described her son as a “mama’s boy.”
“He’s always been a mama’s boy,” she said. Smith said the younger Williams would often act out, playing the class clown, or running into his sister’s classroom, just so his mother would have to come get him. She once got fired because he was calling her so much at work.
Speaking of trouble, when he was 5, she said, he and his best friend Jermaine Davis set a shoe on fire in or near a van that was parked in Berkeley. She laughed as she recalled how her son was sent, as a 5-year-old, to “pyromaniac’s class.” (One of the murders of which Williams was convicted was reportedly carried out to avenge Davis’ fatal shooting in Berkeley, according to the prosecution.)
Mom: “I do enough wrong so you never have to”
Smith described for the jury her son’s difficult birth — how he made a surprise turn so he was feet-first and she needed to have a cesarean section. And she recalled with pride how he had been an All-American athlete in middle school in Modesto, and was scouted by at least seven different schools that wanted him on their teams. He was accepted into a private Christian school where he was a “starring quarterback” and played other positions, too.
She said he was her biggest fan and that she is his. Smith described teaching him how to cook liver at his request — because it’s one of his favorites — and how he’d once started a fire in the kitchen. He called her to ask her what to do, and she told him to put flour on it. As she smiled at the memory, she added, “But not the whole bag.” During the holidays, he’d stay up all night cooking with her.
She was arrested in 2005 on a forgery case, and her son was found guilty the same year of stealing a scooter and repainting it. He was sent to live in a group home in Sacramento. Smith said she went to visit him every weekend, though, and would take him groceries. In September 2005, she was sentenced to seven years for drug sales. That same year, her mother, who had been living with her and the younger Williams, was sent to prison for five years for writing bad checks.
Levy noted that Darnell Jr. was incarcerated with the Youth Authority from 2007 to 2009.
“It was like he kept getting locked up when I was,” Smith said. “Like he’d rather be in jail because I would be in jail.”
She said she always told both her children all they had to do was work hard in school and keep her house clean, and that she would take care of the rest. She’d say, “I do enough wrong so you never have to do anything wrong,” she recalled, as a sort of mantra. “I did the things I did to make sure they had whatever they needed and wanted.”
Williams: “You can’t tell me what to do”
During cross-examination, prosecutor Brouhard brought up a March 2005 expulsion hearing in Modesto — when her son was 14 — following some type of fight as well as an incident Brouhard described as a “threat to harm” school staff. Smith said her son had ultimately been suspended. Brouhard, referring to notes from that hearing, said Smith told administrators she was looking at that time into some sort of “Scared Straight” program for her son to help address his behavior. Smith confirmed that was true.
Brouhard also asked about a recorded conversation while she was in prison when Williams told her, in early September 2013, he planned to leave Berkeley for Las Vegas because he thought the police were looking for him. She reminded him during the call that she still owned a house in Modesto where he could go, and said she hoped he didn’t get arrested during a parole appointment.
Brouhard asked if she recalled telling her son to “stay clear and keep his mind focused.” She said she did, but that it had no particular meaning at that time — days before the second murder for which he would eventually be convicted — because she would always tell him that. She said they would talk almost daily, sometimes three or four times. Her son also told her he wished he could tell her “everything,” according to a transcript Brouhard had in court, and said he “could not remember half the stuff he’s done.”
During cross-examination, Smith admitted her son had sent her letters to send to two other inmates, which is illegal. One of the recipients was Calvester Stewart, the cousin of murder victim Medearis, who is awaiting his own murder trial related to a 2012 case in Berkeley. (Jury selection is scheduled to begin Aug. 1.) Smith said she did not read the letters and there was no indication in court what the subject may have been.
Brouhard also asked about a later conversation, in September 2014, about a year after his arrest in connection with the Alaysha Carradine and Anthony Medearis III shootings. Smith had gone to visit her son at Santa Rita Jail; the conversation was recorded. Brouhard read back lines from Smith and asked if she remembered them.
In that conversation, according to the transcript, Williams had bristled at attempts to guide and advise him by Smith’s former boyfriend Anthony Westbrook, a man who had helped raise him when he was a baby.
He told his mother he respected Westbrook — who had potty-trained Williams, according to his mom — but that it didn’t mean he needed to listen to him.
“‘I’m a grown man, I’m gonna do what I’m fittin’ to do. You can’t tell me what to do, bro,'” he told his mother he had either said to Westbrook or thought about telling him. “I been in the streets since I was 9. So I know what’s what.”
Grandfather: “I tried everything I knew how to do”
Monday, Sheila Smith’s father — who adopted Darnell and his sister — described in court how his grandson inexplicably began cutting school when he was around 10, in fifth grade. He soon took to the streets with his friends. William Smith remembers getting calls from teachers reporting his grandson’s absence.
“Some days I would try to find him. Other days I was at work and I couldn’t leave,” he told the jury. When he did find his grandson, the boy “would run,” Smith recalled. “It would take awhile for me to get him.”
When asked how he would handle those situations, Smith said, “I would try to talk with him to see what the problem was.… I tried everything I knew how to do.”
By the time he was 12 or 13, possibly younger, he was being sent to group homes for the home break-ins. But he kept running away from those homes. Eventually he was locked up for three years, until he was 18, with the Youth Authority. He wasn’t out long before the 2009 shooting attempt in Berkeley that sent him to prison. He was released in May 2013 after that sentence but was soon incarcerated again in connection with the current case.
Smith — perhaps the only male figure in the younger Williams’ life who had no criminal history — said he always talked with his grandson about right and wrong. He never disciplined him physically but at times he would yell. He spoke to him “all the time” about the importance of staying away from guns.
“That’s what my biggest concern with him was about,” Smith said. “I don’t even carry a pocketknife.”
He went to parent-teacher nights and made sure his grandson got to his twice-weekly counseling appointments. Smith often worked long hours during the week but made sure to spend weekends with his grandson, playing ball at the park or doing “whatever he wanted to do.” Smith gave him an allowance and always provided for him. Which is why the home break-ins never made sense to him, he said.
“I always gave him money,” Smith recalled. And he would buy him things: Basketballs, bikes, clothing, anything he would ask for. Of the reason for the home burglaries, he added, “That’s what I couldn’t understand.”
Smith described how Williams had faced a series of increasing penalties, from the group homes to “work weekends” to being locked up in juvenile hall. Even when his grandson was away — at one point, he was placed in Redding — Smith said he would visit, talk on the phone with Williams and bring him food regularly. And the boy always had a place to come home to.
When he was locked up, Smith would — and still does — put money in his grandson’s account so he can buy what he needs inside. There has also been counseling, and other approaches to treatment. Throughout the years, Smith said he always tried to get his grandson to straighten up his act. But nothing seemed to make a difference.
Smith recalled having a “big conversation” with Williams in 2009 when he was released from the Youth Authority.
“He did three years. I thought maybe things had changed,” Smith said. “Didn’t work.”
It wasn’t long before he was locked up again after the robbery and shooting involving Williams’ father and Julius Evans.
Levy asked Smith how he would feel if his grandson receives the death sentence.
“It would hurt,” he said, tearing up. “It all hurts me.”
Attorney: Williams says ‘death sentence is fine with him’ (05.23.16)
‘Penalty trial’ begins in Berkeley-Oakland murder case (05.17.16)
Guilty verdicts in Berkeley-Oakland death penalty case (05.06.16)
Attorneys spar over evidence in death penalty case (05.04.16)
Closing arguments begin in Berkeley-Oakland death penalty case (05.03.16)
Sister of man charged with 2 murders takes the stand (04.26.16)
Berkeley killings get spotlight in death penalty case (04.25.16)
Newly found photo could bolster prosecution’s case in death penalty trial (04.15.16)
Ex-girlfriend of accused killer: ‘I feel scared to this day’ (04.11.16)
Judge orders Williams trial to continue after defendant threatens suicide, violence (04.04.16)
Years on, Alaysha Carradine killing is still haunting (03.31.16)
Defense says lack of evidence will cast doubt in double murder trial (03.29.16)
Prosecutor: Berkeley killing sparked ‘rampage of violence’ that left little girl dead (03.29.16)
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