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Richard Williams

Other California Cases with Mistaken Witness Identifications
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On the afternoon of August 12, 1996, 17-year-old Marvel Chase was shot to death behind the wheel of his 1977 Mercury Cougar in Sacramento, California. Chase's passengers, 16-year-old Jacoby Spratling and 20-year-old Marquelle Dedmon, escaped injury.

Prior to the shooting, Chase had driven slowly past a group of black youths standing in front of a duplex on Wesley Avenue. One of the youths wore a green shirt and the rest wore red. The group looked at the Cougar as it drove by and Spratling looked back.

As Chase drove down 48th Avenue toward Martin Luther King Boulevard, a green Mustang with black rims approached from the opposite direction. The Mustang's driver and passenger glared at Chase, Dedmon, and Spratling, who stared right back and the cars continued on.

As Chase drew to a stop sign at Martin Luther King Boulevard, the Mustang, which had apparently circled around, slowly pulled alongside. The passenger pulled out a long chrome semiautomatic handgun and shots were fired. Chase jumped in the back seat, yelling that he was wounded. Spratling and Dedmon managed to get the Cougar to a nearby parking lot where paramedics were called. Chase died on the way to the hospital from a bullet through his heart.

Spratling and Dedmon recounted the circumstances of the shooting to sheriff's deputies at the AAMCO shop and to detectives at the sheriff's station. Spratling also showed detectives the duplex on Wesley Avenue where he had seen the group of young men wearing red and green. A month later, 18-year-old Richard Williams, the owner of a green Mustang with silver rims, was charged with the murder of Chase and the attempted murder of Spratling and Dedmon.

Williams went to trial in Sacramento County Superior Court in December 1997, but a mistrial was declared when the jury was unable to reach unanimous verdict.

He went to trial a second time in July 1998. Sheriff’s detectives testified that on the evening of the shooting, they found a dirty green 1968 Mustang with silver rims registered to Williams in the parking lot of a condominium complex not far from the shooting. The jury was shown photographs that revealed a broken vent window on the driver’s side which police said was caused by a bullet fired from inside the car.

A crime lab analyst testified that it appeared that the bullet holes in Chase’s Cougar were caused by .38-caliber or .357-caliber bullets. A small caliber shell casing was found on the middle back seat of the car and three more were found around and under the back seat. Because two of the bullets fired at the car were never found, the analyst would not rule out the possibility that two of the bullet holes were caused by .25- caliber bullets.

Dedmon, one of the two passengers with Chase, refused to testify. But Spratling, the other passenger, told the jury that the driver of the green Mustang was a light-skinned African-American, 17 to 20 years old, slim, with long braided hair who was wearing a green shirt. Spratling contended that the driver was the youth in a green shirt that he saw in front of the duplex just before the shooting.

Spratling testified that detectives showed him a five-person photographic lineup which included an image of the defendant in photograph number 4. Spratling testified that he thought that either of the men in photos number 3 and number 4 could have been the driver, but that ultimately he selected Williams as the driver. The photograph of Williams was taken in bright light which made his skin color look lighter while the photographs of the other four men were taken in a dark room which made their skin color look darker. Spratling identified Williams in the courtroom as the driver of the green Mustang.

However, Spratling said that when police showed him photographs of Williams’ Mustang, he told them the car was “too shiny” to be the car from which shots were fired. Spratling said the car in the photograph could have been the Mustang involved in the shooting if the paint was “a lot more dull.”

Corey Schuler testified that he lived near the location of the shooting and that about a half hour before the incident, he saw a thin, short-haired, black male between 18 and 25 years old talking another youth whom he identified as Aaron Struthers. The man appeared upset, motioned to a group of people gathered down the block, and threatened get his gun.

Schuler said Struthers and the thin man walked away and about 20 minutes later a green Mustang drove by. The driver, Schuler said, was a light-skinned black male with braids. Schuler heard five or six gunshots from the direction of 48th Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard a few minutes later. He saw the same green Mustang speeding eastbound on 48th Avenue toward Wesley. Schuler said the passenger was the same young man he had seen yelling a few minutes earlier. Schuler was shown the same photographic lineup that was shown to Spratling. Schuler testified that he picked number 2, number 4 (Williams), and number 5 as “possibilities” for the driver of the Mustang. Schuler could not identify Williams in court, but told the jury that Williams fit the general description of the person he saw driving the Mustang.

Schuler testified that the photographs of Williams’ Mustang appeared to show the same car he saw, except that the rims were not the rims on the Mustang from which the shots were fired and the taillights were different as well. During cross-examination, Schuler expressed doubt that the Mustang in the detectives' photographs was the Mustang involved in the shooting.

On August 3, 1998, the jury convicted Williams of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

After Williams’ convictions were upheld by the California Court of Appeal, he filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, contending that the prosecutor had improperly excluded the only prospective black juror. The petition noted that in his first trial, the jury had failed to reach a unanimous verdict and that the only two black jurors had voted to acquit Williams.

In 2014, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton granted the petition and ordered a new trial. The judge ruled that the prosecutor’s exclusion of the only prospective black juror was based on her race and that the reasons he offered for excluding the juror were pretextual.

In April 2015, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

In October 2015, Williams went to trial a third time. His attorney, Victor Haltom, attacked Spratling’s identification of Williams in the photographic lineup as being the product of police coercion. For the first time in Williams’ trials, Haltom pointed out that although police had several different photographs of Williams, they chose to include the only photograph of Williams in which he was wearing a green shirt—the same color shirt that witnesses said the driver of the Mustang was wearing. Moreover, Williams was the only one of the five youths in the photograph lineup who was wearing a green shirt.

In addition, Haltom presented evidence that after the shooting, shots were fired at the home of the youth who had been seen shouting that he was going to get his gun moments before the shooting occurred.

The youth’s mother, according to the evidence, had told police that the shooting at her house was in retaliation for the shooting that killed Chase. She told the investigating officer that “the guys that were in the green Mustang had done the shooting,” and the people in the Mustang “were at the house and had left and had done the shooting.”

On November 2, 2015, after deliberating for five days, the jury acquitted Williams of the murder and attempted murder charges and he was released. Williams sought compensation from the state of California, but in 2017 his claim was denied when the California Victim Compensation Board found he had failed to prove his innocence.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/26/2016
Last Updated: 12/15/2017
State:California
County:Sacramento
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder
Reported Crime Date:1996
Convicted:1998
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No