On September 28, 1998, a nine-year-old girl said a man had harassed her and her five-year-old friend as they were walking home from school in Oakland, California. She called out to a 15-year-old relative who was nearby waiting for a bus and pointed to the man, who was walking away. The relative told the girls to run home.
When she got home the nine-year-old told her mother that the man grabbed his “private parts” and said bizarre things to them.
The girl described the man as black, 5 feet, 11 inches, 200 pounds with black jerry-curled hair, black eyes, a mustache and a high-pitched voice. The girl’s mother did not call police.
The following day, September 29, 1998, while on the way to school, the nine-year-old saw the man again. She said he forced her and her 5-year-old friend behind a nearby day care center where he sexually assaulted both girls and ejaculated on the nine-year-old girl’s shirt. The girl called her mother for help from a pay phone on the street corner. During the call, the girl said the man tried to cancel the call by pushing the telephone buttons and told her he wanted to marry her, before he walked away.
Police interviewed the girl later that day and she said that the man had touched her with his penis the day before, but she had not told her mother. In this interview, she did not mention that the man had ejaculated on her the second day, so her shirt was not retrieved by police. The girl said that the man said his name was “Johnny.”
When the girl’s mother heard that the man had identified himself as “Johnny,” she concluded that it had been 23-year-old Johnny Williams, a neighborhood resident whose physical appearance was quite different than the man the nine-year-old described. Williams was black, 6 feet, 1 inch tall and weighed 250 pounds.
On September 30, police showed the girl a photographic lineup and she selected Williams’ photograph—although by that time, she knew that her mother believed Williams was the attacker and she had heard her mother refer to him by his first and last name.
The photographic lineup was shown to the girl’s teenaged relative who had seen the man on September 28, but he was unable to identify anyone.
After Williams’ photograph was selected, police arrested him on outstanding traffic warrants and subjected him to a lengthy interrogation. Over the course of the interrogation, Williams denied committing any sexual assault more than 45 times, although at one point, after police claimed they had dozens of witnesses, a security video and DNA evidence linking him to the crime, he declared, “I did it. I did everything.”
After this statement, the police pressed him on specific details about the assault from the 28th and he immediately denied any involvement and again steadfastly maintained innocence for the rest of the interrogation.
The detectives did not believe that he was confessing and at the end of the tape-recorded interview, they told Williams they considered his statements to be a denial.
Williams was charged with two counts of lewd conduct with a child, kidnapping and rape. He was initially also charged with assaulting the five-year-old girl, but those charges were dismissed after a preliminary hearing.
Williams went on trial before an Alameda County Superior Court jury in April 2000. The nine-year-old girl identified him as her attacker and also identified a pair of shoes confiscated from Williams at the time of his arrest, saying they were worn by her attacker. She also testified that Williams had raped her.
The girl’s relative—who had been unable to identify Williams in the photographic lineup—identified Williams as the man he saw walking away from the nine-year-old the first time she said he was harassing her on September 28, 1998.
Prosecutors played portions of the recorded interrogation, including Williams’ statement, “I did it. I did everything.” They also played portions of the tape in which Williams said he liked to please young girls who walked down the street and that he was aroused by young girls who looked older—although Williams maintained he was talking about teen-aged girls, not girls as young as the victim.
The shirt the girl wore on the day she said her attacker ejaculated on her had been retrieved by police eight days after the attack, but a crime lab analysis failed to identify any semen. Williams’ defense attorney argued the lack of biological evidence on the shirt suggested the girl had concocted her story of the attack. The prosecution contended that because not all of the shirt had been tested, it was possible that biological evidence had been overlooked.
Williams presented an alibi defense for September 28—that he was out of town at a theme park and did not return until after late afternoon, after the alleged assault occurred. The defense argued that since the victim said the same man attacked her both days, the attacker could not have been Williams if he was out of town on the day of the first attack.
On June 8, 2000, a jury convicted Williams of two counts of lewd conduct and attempted rape, which was a lesser included offense in the rape charge. The jury deadlocked on the kidnapping charge, which was then dismissed. Williams was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
In 2002, William’s conviction was upheld by the California Court of Appeal, although the court criticized the detectives for repeatedly telling Williams during their interrogation that they were trying to get him help for a sexual problem, not prosecute him. The court said the officers engaged in permissible deception, but “crossed the line” when they sought to get him to confess by saying, “The thing is we’re not here to basically call you a criminal or we’re not here to get you put in jail and these types of things. If you have a problem, this is the way of addressing it.” However, the court held the comments did not deny Williams a fair trial.
In 2006, Williams wrote to the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University Law School asking for help. Because of an enormous backlog of requests, lawyers there were unable to help. In April 2010, however, his case was referred to the California DNA Initiative, a federally-funded project to investigate cases with existing DNA evidence, jointly operated by NCIP and the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law in San Diego.
In February 2012, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office agreed to DNA testing of the shirt worn by the nine-year-old girl. Tests conducted by a private DNA laboratory excluded Williams. Further DNA tests were conducted by the Oakland Police Department forensic laboratory and again Williams was excluded.
On January 7, 2013, Williams was released from prison on parole.
On March 1, 2013, a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed on Williams’ behalf by California DNA Project lawyer Melissa Dague O’Connell. On March 8, 2013, by agreement of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, Williams’ convictions were set aside and the case dismissed
The DNA profile obtained from the victim’s shirt was submitted to local, state and federal DNA databases, but no match was found.
The exoneration of Williams is the first DNA exoneration to result from the California DNA Project.
– Maurice Possley