James Williams

Just before 3 a.m. on May 2, 1981, 50-year-old James Williams, a well-known antiques dealer and leader of the historic home preservation movement in Savannah, Georgia, called police to his home to report that he had shot his assistant, 21-year-old Danny Hansford.

When police arrived at Williams’ home, he opened the door and said, “I shot him. He’s in the other room.”

Several weeks later, Williams was indicted for Hansford’s murder. The case would become one of the most well-known in Georgia history—not only because Williams was tried four times, but because the case was the subject of the bestselling book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Williams went on trial in Chatham County Superior Court. The prosecution contended that Williams murdered Hansford, who worked as an assistant in Williams’ antiques and home restoration business and also had a homosexual relationship with Williams.

Williams contended he shot Hansford in self-defense after Hansford fired a gun at home.

A police officer testified that he found Hansford lying face down with a pistol under his right hand. Hansford was shot in the back, the chest, and above the right ear. Bullet holes in the floor corresponded to the shots in Hansford’s head and back. The leg of a chair was on top of Hansford’s pant leg.

A bullet had passed through some papers on a desk and lead fragments were recovered from a chair behind the desk. On the desk, police found the pistol Williams used to shoot Hansford.

Police testified that Hansford’s hands were covered with bags before the body was removed and that later tests of Hansford’s hands showed no gun powder residue. The prosecution contended the lack of residue showed that Hansford had not fired a weapon and therefore, Williams had staged the scene to look like he was acting in self-defense.

Prosecutors claimed that Williams shot Hansford with the gun he put on his desk, then shot at his desk and chair with a second gun, which he then placed under Hansford’s hand.

Williams testified that Hansford had been drinking and became angry and threw him against a door. He said Hansford barged into a hallway where he knocked a grandfather clock to the floor, and returned with a gun, which he fired at Williams, who had sat down behind the desk. Williams said the shot missed him and he then pulled a gun from the desk and fired three shots at Hansford.

Williams also testified that this was not Hansford’s first violent moment. He said that he had called police to the home a month earlier after Hansford went into a rage, breaking furniture and firing a gunshot into the floor in one of the bedrooms.

A police officer testified in rebuttal that he was sent to the home to investigate that shooting and found Hansford not raging, but in fact sleeping on the bed next to bullet hole. He said he could not determine whether the bullet hole was fresh or came from a previous shooting. The prosecution contended the bullet hole was old and Williams had fired the shot into the floor at some earlier time—all the while planning to kill Hansford later—to buttress his claim of that Hansford had a violent nature.

After closing arguments and before the jury was instructed, Williams’ defense attorney asked if there was anything in the officer’s reports which would contradict the officer’s testimony about the bullet hole in the bedroom floor. The prosecution said there was not.

On February 2, 1982, the jury convicted Williams and he was sentenced to life in prison. He was allowed to remain free during appeal.

The conviction was reversed in January 1983 by the Georgia Supreme Court because the defense had found a portion of a police report that the prosecution had failed to disclose. The omitted portion of the report referred to the responding officer’s investigation of the bedroom floor bullet hole, and said the bedroom bullet hole was fresh–which contradicted the officer’s trial testimony that he could not tell whether the bullet hole was fresh or not.

Williams went on trial a second time in September 1983. The evidence was largely the same, although Williams’ lawyer, Sonny Seiler, allowed Williams to openly admit that he was having a homosexual relationship with Hansford.

The prosecution called a detective who testified as an expert and concluded, based on his analysis of Hansford’s wounds, that the blood on his face and hand and the lack of a wound on his hand showed that Hansford fell down on his right hand. The detective said that the evidence showed that Williams had pulled Hansford’s hand from under his body and placed the pistol under it.

The defense, in an attempt to explain the lack of gunshot residue on Hansford’s hand, called an expert who testified that the type of pistol the police found under his hand only produced gunshot residue 50 percent of the time.

Williams was convicted on October 8, 1983 and again was sentenced to life in prison.

In June 1985, the Georgia Supreme Court once again overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court ruled that the prosecution should not have been allowed to present the detective’s conclusion that the crime scene was staged because a party “may not employ an expert to argue and bolster its theory of the case where neither the ultimate issue of fact nor the method of proving that fact are beyond the average juror’s comprehension.”

The court also ruled that the prosecution had improperly discussed facts that were not in evidence in its closing argument.

Williams went on trial a third time in the spring of 1987. Prior to the trial, Seiler subpoenaed records from the hospital where Hansford was taken after the investigation was concluded at Williams’ home. The hospital disclosed an admitting record that suggested that Hansford’s hands were not bagged when he was brought to the hospital. Seiler located the nurse who had signed the document and she said that while the body was still at the hospital, she received a telephone call from the medical examiner instructing her to bag Hansford’s hands.

At the third trial, the nurse testified that she had put plastic garbage can liners around Hansford’s hands before the body was removed for the autopsy. An expert testified for the defense that plastic bags create moisture, which could have washed away any residue. The state argued that the nurse’s notation about the bagging of Hansford’s hands was under the heading of “nurse assessment” instead of under “orders and treatment.” Therefore, the state argued, the note “hands bagged” referred to an observation of the body when it arrived, not an action that was taken after it arrived.

On June 9, 1987, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, with 11 jurors voting to convict and one juror voting to acquit. A mistrial was declared.

After a defense motion seeking to bar another trial on the ground of double jeopardy was denied in 1988, a fourth trial was held. This trial was held in Augusta, Georgia, after a defense motion for a change of venue was granted.

At this trial, the defense presented another hospital employee who corroborated the nurse’s testimony. The employee said that Hansford’s hands were not bagged until after he arrived at the hospital.

On May 9, 1989, the jury acquitted Williams.

– Maurice Possley

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State:Georgia
County:Chatham
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1981
Convicted:1982
Exonerated:1989
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age:50
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No