“I think Juliet and her team put [the governor] in a position he couldn’t get out of,” said death penalty activist Charlie Kafoure, of Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s surprise decision this week to stay the execution of Darnell Williams.
Williams’ attorney, Juliet Yackel, packed Monday’s clemency board hearing with the unusual cast of characters that has emerged on Williams’ behalf in the weeks leading up to his execution, including the prosecutor who sent him to death row and a juror who helped convince his peers to recommend the death penalty at trial. (“Running Out of Time on Death Row,” July 23) O’Bannon’s decision grants a 60-day stay of execution so that DNA testing can be done on blood found on Williams — blood that prosecutors said tied him to a 1986 double murder in Gary. Williams’ execution was initially scheduled for Aug. 1. Courts have continually ruled that Williams would have been convicted and sent to death row even without the blood evidence, a claim that Gov. O’Bannon acknowledged but overruled, noting the “unique circumstances of the case.” The juror who came forward said the blood evidence is what convinced him and other jurors of Williams’ guilt and what persuaded them to recommend the death penalty. O’Bannon’s announcement came after several hours of often emotional testimony from Williams’ supporters and from members of the victims’ family. Kevin Johnson, a lifelong friend of Williams who once witnessed him saving a friend’s life after a car accident, asked the board simply, “Please, please, let my friend live.” Some of the most compelling statements came from Williams’ former special education teacher, whose husband was murdered three years ago. “Darnell was not a child in school who did anything wrong,” she said. “I do not feel that Darnell was the kind of person like the one who killed my husband.” She added that Williams, like his one-time co-defendant Gregory Rouster, was once diagnosed as mentally retarded. Rouster, who was also sent to death row, was recently ruled ineligible for the death penalty because he is mentally retarded. Former prosecutor Thomas Vanes said much of his decision to come forward was based on Rouster’s fate. “I struggle with the idea that Williams will receive the death penalty and Rouster won’t,” Vanes said, noting that Rouster was the person “most responsible for this crime.” Rouster and Williams were convicted in the killing of Rouster’s former foster parents, John and Henrietta Rease. Members of the Rease family also spoke at the hearing, asking the four-member parole board to consider the victims. “They talk about him like he’s a saint,” said Felicia Moore, the Reases’ great niece, of the witnesses who spoke up for Williams. “My aunt and uncle are no longer here; who’s going to consider them?” Williams’ family held an impromptu prayer circle after the hearing, asking God to grant justice and right the wrong that had been done. Family spokesperson Anna Williams told the board, “I believe when the Bible says thou shalt not kill, that applies to the state, too.”