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Barry Williams

Other Los Angeles, California exonerations
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In January 2021, nearly 35 years after Barry Williams was sentenced to death for murder in a case riddled with police and prosecutor misconduct and five years after the conviction was overturned, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case.

Williams’s conviction was vacated in 2016 by U.S. District Court Judge David Carter, who granted a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus and ruled that two prosecutors, Carmen Trutanich and James Jacobs, failed to disclose evidence that was favorable to Williams and allowed witnesses to testify falsely.

The murder at the center of the case occurred at about 6:30 p.m. on March 25, 1982, as 21-year-old Jerome Dunn and his friend, Kenneth Hayes, rode their bicycles during a twilight drizzle of rain to see their girlfriends in south Central Los Angeles, California. On 88th Place near McKinley Avenue, Dunn, who was riding ahead of Hayes, stopped next to a van.

Hayes would later testify that he saw Dunn talking and that he heard laughter and someone speaking from inside the van. Hayes said that as he approached to about four feet from the van, someone’s right hand emerged from the driver’s window and shot Dunn repeatedly.

Dunn was pronounced dead with five gunshot wounds, including two in the head.

The only other witness was Patricia Lewis. She told police she was a passenger in a car that was driving northbound on McKinley Avenue toward 88th Place when she saw a van approach the intersection from her right. As the van turned north onto McKinley, Lewis said she heard laughing from inside. She said the van passed three or four houses and then stopped abruptly and began backing up. Lewis said the car she was in had to back up and stop while the van then turned onto 88th Place.

Lewis said that after the van pulled alongside Dunn, there was brief conversation and then a hand holding a pistol emerged from the driver’s window. She said that the car she was in then resumed driving north on McKinley and that she heard, but did not see, gunshots. She said that when she got out of the car at her home on 87th Place just a few blocks away, she saw the van again traveling at a high rate of speed.

The van had been stripped when it was subsequently recovered about four blocks from the shooting. Police learned that the van had been stolen about a half hour earlier from a supermarket parking lot by two Black men described as having short natural-styled hair. Four fingerprints were lifted from the van.

On April 22, 1982, Los Angeles police arrested 20-year-old Barry Williams for the June 16, 1981 murder of Donald Billingsley, who had been fatally shot at Green Meadow Park near 88th and San Pedro Streets, just a few blocks from where Dunn was killed.

On June 16, 1982, Williams was also charged with Dunn’s murder, after Lewis identified Williams as the driver of the van. Although the descriptions of the men who stole the van included having natural-styled hair, Williams did not have natural-styled hair—he had jheri curls.

The two shootings occurred in a neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles where two major street gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, often clashed, particularly in territorial disputes. The prosecution claimed that Williams was a high-ranking member of the Bloods. It claimed that he shot Dunn, who was wearing a blue jacket—the color of the Crips—because he was an opposing gang member.

On July 15, 1982, Arthur Cox gave a statement to Los Angeles Police Detective Michael Mejia and to Los Angeles County deputy district attorney James Jacobs. Cox had been arrested in April 1982 for armed robbery and was being held at the Los Angeles County Jail. In the statement, Cox said that he and Williams happened to be in the same cell and that Williams said that Curtis Thomas had shot Dunn. Cox said that Williams admitted that he told Thomas to shoot.

Prior to Williams’s trial for the murder of Dunn, a hearing was held on a defense motion to bar Cox’s testimony. The motion claimed that Cox was acting as an agent of the prosecution when he had conversations with Williams and that eliciting any information from Williams was a violation of his constitutional rights because he was represented by defense counsel.

Jacobs testified that the interview was conducted because Cox had offered to supply more information in return for help on his pending robbery case. Jacobs said he told Cox there would be no consideration for information—only for testimony. Jacobs said he was not asking Cox to get information from Williams. Beyond that, Jacobs said that Cox was in a different section, called a module, of the jail from Williams. Jacobs said that a deal was made with Cox in September 1982 to limit the sentence on the robbery case.

Mejia testified that Cox reached out to him before the July 15, 1982 meeting, possibly on July 10—after a preliminary hearing in Williams’s case, which was held on July 7 and 8, 1982. Mejia said he did nothing to urge or help Cox get information from Williams.

The defense motion to bar Cox’s testimony was denied.

In October 1985, Williams went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court for the murder of Dunn. He had been convicted earlier in the year of the Billingsley murder, as well as two counts of attempted murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. He was sentenced to 34 years to life in prison on that case.

The lead prosecutor, Carmen Trutanich, claimed that Williams was known as “Big Time” and was a member of the 89th Street Family Bloods. Dunn was shot several hours after Williams led a meeting of Bloods on the morning of March 25, 1982 to discuss how to “protect” the neighborhood from members of the rival Crips. According to Trutanich, members of the Bloods were told at the meeting that anyone who wanted to shoot rival gang members could go out and shoot.

Witnesses testified that around 6:30 p.m. that evening, two men stole a van at gunpoint at a Food Barn near Rosecrans and Central Avenues. Not long after, this van arrived at the intersection of 88th Place and McKinley Avenue. That was when Dunn and Hayes, riding their bicycles came along. Both were associated with the Grape Street Crips and were dressed in blue clothing, typical for Crip gang members.

Hayes testified that Dunn was ahead of him and next to the van. He said he heard laughter and talking, and that he stopped about three or four feet from the driver’s door. He said he saw the driver’s hands on the steering wheel. Then, Hayes said, a person’s right arm and right hand holding a handgun came out of the driver’s window. Several shots were fired. Dunn fell the ground, then got up and ran, but collapsed. Hayes said that although he and Dunn were both wearing blue, neither of them was a member of the Crips.

Lewis testified that she was a passenger in a car driven by Jean Rivers. Lewis identified photographs of the stolen van as the van she saw at the intersection. She said that when the van began to turn in front of the car she was riding in, she noticed that the driver had something shiny in the upper right side of his mouth. She said the driver was Williams and that he was laughing. She said that as Dunn rode by, Williams said, “Let’s go [obscenity] him up.”

Lewis said that it was Williams’s hand and arm that came out of the window—although at the preliminary hearing she said she could not tell if the hand and arm belonged to the driver or a passenger. She said that she did not testify accurately at the preliminary hearing because she was afraid. Lewis said she did not see the shots because Rivers drove the car forward. Lewis said Rivers then drove her home. Lewis said that she saw the van again and that Williams was in it, along with Curtis Thomas and Mark Williams.

Lewis testified that she had never seen Williams at her house. However, Lewis’s husband, Joe, would later testify for the defense that Williams had been there on almost a daily basis for several years as part of a cadet corps that Joe organized. Lewis denied looking at photographs of Williams, although Joe testified that he kept photo albums of the cadet corps members out in plain view and that he saw her looking at the album that contained Williams’s photo.

Lewis also testified that on the night of January 7, 1983, nearly 10 months after the shooting, her house was shot up. About 45 to 50 shots were fired and although there were four people inside, no one was hit.

Mark Williams, who was a member of the 89th Street Family Bloods, but was not related to Barry Williams, testified about the shooting. Patricia Lewis had identified Mark Williams as a passenger in the van.

Mark Williams denied involvement in the shooting of Lewis’s house. He had been prosecuted as a juvenile for being involved in the Dunn murder. The prosecution called Kenneth Simmons, who said that Mark Williams told him that he and others had gone “to take care of some business for Barry but it wasn’t done right or something like that.”

Police officer Jerry Johnson testified as a gang expert. He said the shooting occurred in Crips territory and the van was found abandoned in territory claimed by the 89th Street Family Bloods. Detective Mejia, who also testified as a gang expert, said the van was found in an area that was the subject of territorial disputes between the 89th Street Family Bloods and the Avalon Garden Crips.

The van was recovered less than an hour later.

Detective Joe Holmes said that two months prior to the trial, prosecutor Trutanich asked him to look for information on the case. Holmes said that he reached out to John Gardner, who was an informant. Holmes said he did not interview Gardner earlier because he was a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detective and the case was handled by the city of Los Angeles police.

John Gardner testified that at about 9 p.m. that night, he saw Williams and that Williams told him that he had taken a rival Crips member “out of the box,” which was gang jargon for murder. Gardner said Williams said he had killed a gang member named “Silky,” but then, under his breath, said the victim was “Bone,” which was Dunn’s nickname. Gardner said Williams discussed killing Dunn again about a week later. Gardner first said the only benefit he received for his testimony was relocation for himself and his mother. He later said he had pled guilty to a sale of marijuana charge and was sentenced to eight days in jail, although the charge carried a mandatory sentence of two to four years in prison. He also said he admitted to Holmes that he had committed a burglary, but he was never charged.

Cox testified that he was a member of the 89th Street Family Bloods and that Williams was the leader. He also said that while he and Williams were in the jail together, Williams said that Curtis Thomas was the gunman, but that Williams had told Thomas to shoot Dunn.

Cox and the prosecution claimed that no deal was made for his testimony. However, Cox was later given probation on the armed robbery charge, relocated, and given an undetermined amount of cash.

Cox admitted that he had given a false name on the several occasions when he had been arrested. Cox said that at the time he was in jail and talking to Williams, his brother, Ernest Cox, was in the jail as well. Cox denied telling his brother that he had “to find something on Williams” even though he knew nothing about Williams’s case. Cox also denied reading the transcript from Williams’s preliminary hearing.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Shook testified that he was the judge who sentenced Cox on the marijuana case. Judge Shook said Cox received 162 days out of a possible four-year sentence. And when Cox was subsequently brought before Judge Shook on a probation violation, Judge Shook said no time was added to Cox’s sentence. Judge Shook said that favoritism or leniency were not factors in his sentencing decisions.

The jury was shown photographs of 88th Place where the shooting occurred. In addition, the jury was told that four fingerprints were lifted from the van, though only two were of sufficient quality for comparison. Williams was ruled out as the person who left the two prints that were suitable for comparison.

A police firearms analyst testified that the casings and spent bullets were consistent with a .38-caliber revolver, though no gun was ever recovered for comparison.

The defense called Dr. Robert Shomer, who testified about factors that could cause a mistaken witness identification that included hypothetical situations similar to the conditions under which Lewis identified Williams. Dr. Shomer testified about “unconscious transference,” a phenomenon in which a witness makes an identification based on a prior familiarity with someone. The defense argued that Lewis’s identification of Williams may have been the product of her seeing Williams when he was a member of her husband’s cadet corps.

Dr. Gregory Golden, a forensic dentist, testified that he had worked in a children’s dental clinic through University of Southern California School of Dentistry. He said that about one out of eight children had a stainless-steel crown in the front of their mouths.

Williams’s aunt, Lena Bridges, testified that Williams and Jeanette Houston, with whom Williams had a child, were at her home on the night of the shooting.

Police officer Jerry Johnson testified that on the night of the shooting, Hayes gave a statement saying that the driver’s hands were on the steering wheel and that a passenger fired the shots.

Eric Porter, a former member of the Avalon Garden Crips, testified that he had known Williams all his life and that the Avalon Garden Crips had no animosity toward Williams.

Ernest Cox, Arthur Cox’s brother, testified that in June and July 1982, he was in the County Jail with Arthur. Ernest said he saw Arthur reading Williams’s preliminary hearing transcript. Arthur told him that if he could find information to help convict Williams, that he would receive probation on his pending robbery instead of a four-year-sentence, which had been offered in return for a guilty plea.

Ernest, who was serving a life sentence for a robbery and murder, said that he knew Williams as “Slim” and that he did not know anyone called “Big Time.”

On January 17, 1986, the jury convicted Williams of capital murder. Following a penalty hearing, the jury sentenced Williams to death.

The California Supreme Court upheld Williams’s conviction for the Dunn murder in 1998. Attorneys Mark Silverstein and Joan Howarth from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conducted an extensive investigation of the case and uncovered evidence that Trutanich had failed to disclose to the defense. Silverstein and Howarth filed a state petition for habeas corpus in November 1995. Five years later, in September 2000, the California Supreme Court denied the petition.

In January 2000, Williams filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The following year, Cox and Gardner recanted their testimony. Both provided statements to the defense lawyers. Cox said that deputy district attorney James Jacobs threatened to prosecute him as an accessory to the murder of Don Billingsley unless Cox agreed to testify against Williams. Cox said Jacobs threatened him with a sentence of 15 to 25 years that would be consecutive to the pending robbery charge. Cox said he agreed to accept immunity in the Billingsley case and a cash payment in return for testifying against Williams.

“I lied on the stand against Barry Williams because I didn’t want to do the 25 years,” Cox said. “When the District Attorney offered to pay me and relocate me, I agreed to say what he wanted me to say.”

In addition, the defense located a witness who said that on the night Billingsley was killed, she heard shots and saw three men run away. She said Williams was not with them. She identified one of the three as Willie “Junior” Bridges Jr., another member of the 89th Street Family Bloods. Williams was a cousin to Bridges.

Gardner, in his recantation, said that Junior Bridges—not Williams—was known as “Big Time.” Gardner said that he became a witness when he was facing a robbery charge and the prosecutor, Trutanich, asked him to testify against Williams. “Trutanich basically told me that either Barry was going to do time for the murder or I was going to do time for the robbery.”

“Trutanich and his people coached me and told me what to say on the stand,” Gardner said. “They told me to look at Barry in the courtroom, but I couldn’t. I was lying and Barry knew it. I have never heard Barry Williams say that he was responsible for killing anyone.”

Gardner said that after he testified, “I felt bad about lying on the stand. I went to the district attorneys and told them I had lied on the stand and that I wanted to change my testimony, even if it meant doing time for robbery and perjury. They didn’t want to hear about it.”

Gardner said that on the night Dunn was killed, he was at the home of a friend when Junior Bridges, rain-soaked and out of breath, came to the door. “Junior had a .38-caliber gun. You could smell the gun and tell that it had recently been fired. The gun belonged to Junior…Junior said Bone had been shot and he wanted us to hide the gun."

In addition, Bridges gave a statement to the defense saying that he was driving the van on the night Dunn was killed. He said that he and others in the van were taken by surprise when one of the passengers stuck out a gun and shot Dunn. Afterward, Bridges took the gun to a friend’s house and asked them to hide it.

Thirteen years later, in December 2013, Williams was granted a hearing on several claims of prosecutorial misconduct. The hearing was held over various days between March 12, 2015 and April 30, 2015.

Williams’s lawyers, federal public defenders Tracy Casadio, Joseph Trigilio and Guy Iverson, said that the prosecution had failed to disclose to Williams’s defense lawyers:

--a taped interview with witness Patricia Lewis prior to the trial during which she did not mention any shiny tooth in the driver’s mouth and instead said they were “pearl white.”

--that before selecting Williams’s photograph in the array, Lewis said she had heard on the street that the “Bridges boys” were responsible for the shooting.

--that Lewis did not know that Williams was a cousin to the Bridges until police told her.

--that Lewis, during the taped interview, gave a different version of where she was at the time of the shooting and indicated she was far enough away that she was not sure that she heard gunshots.

--that Lewis described the driver as having a slight beard and mustache—which actually resembled Willie Bridges.

--that Lewis did not say that she heard the driver say, “Let’s go [obscenity] him up.” In fact, she did not mention at all that she heard anything from anyone in the van.

--that when Lewis expressed a reluctance to identify Williams, the prosecution threatened to prosecute her.

--documents impeaching witness John Gardner’s testimony that he was an active gang member.

-- records that Gardner abused drugs.

--that the prosecution agreed to refrain from prosecuting Gardner in a criminal case.

-- that the prosecution paid for Gardner’s food and lodging in a hotel.

-- that the prosecution gave Gardner a check for several hundred dollars and also bought his family several hundred dollars’ worth of groceries.

-- that the state arranged for Gardner to get into a drug rehab program.

--that deputy district attorney James Jacobs wrote memos saying that Cox would testify and help clear additional cases if he got help on his pending robbery case and if the prosecution would relocate him and his family—and that Cox had been offered four years on the robbery case.

--that Cox received a benefit from the prosecution in another case. In that case, a witness identified Cox as one of three men who stole her purse and that during that case, Cox, after refusing to testify, was granted immunity.

--that the prosecution attempted to get Cox a job.

-- that the prosecution arranged for Cox’s brother, Ernest, to be transferred from Folsom prison to a more desirable location.

-- that the prosecution arranged for Cox’s early release from a marijuana case.

-- information relating to Cox’s heavy use of crack cocaine.

--that the prosecution had threatened to prosecute Cox as an accessory to the murder of Billingsley.

The defense also claimed that the prosecution had committed other misconduct, including threatening witness Mark Williams with the death penalty unless he testified, failing to correct the false testimony of Gardner that the only benefit he got was relocation of him and his family, and failing to correct the false testimony of deputy district attorney Jacobs.

The defense also claimed that Detective Holmes falsely testified about not being involved in the case because he was in the sheriff’s department and that Detective Michael Mejia falsely testified that he met Cox after the preliminary hearing—he met him before the hearing.

In addition, the defense said Judge John Shook falsely testified about sentencing Cox. In fact, Shook wasn’t a judge at the time Cox was sentenced. Cox was sentenced by Judge Robert Thomas. The prosecution had relied upon Shook’s testimony to argue that Cox had no deal with and received no favorable treatment from the prosecution.

In March 2016, U.S. District Judge David Carter vacated Williams’s conviction for the murder of Dunn. The judge ruled that the prosecution had failed to turn over evidence, had allowed witnesses to lie, and had testified falsely themselves. The judge was critical of the California Supreme Court for denying William’s state habeas petition. Judge Carter said that the “summary denial of [Williams’s] allegations given evidence that was presented to it in state habeas proceedings was inexplicable.”

The judge also noted, “As it did in this case, the California Supreme Court routinely summarily denies state habeas petitions in capital cases. Yet the federal courts grant habeas relief in California capital cases in well over half the cases they review.” That is problematic, Judge Carter noted, because by the time a California capital case reaches federal court, “often decades have passed and critical evidence is no longer available.”

Judge Carter ruled that Trutanich had presented false testimony from Judge Shook regarding the sentencing of Cox. Carter said Trutanich’s action was a “negligent, yet inadvertent oversight, but that Trutanich should have known that Judge Shook’s testimony was not true...”

Judge Carter also concluded that Cox was “acting as agent of the prosecution” when he was speaking with Williams in the jail—that the prosecution placed Cox next to Williams “for the purpose of obtaining incriminating statements and Cox deliberately elicited these statements...in violation” of Williams’s constitutional rights. Judge Carter ruled that Detective Mejia testified falsely about when he met with Cox and that Cox had already been moved into the jail module with Williams.

“Thus, in view of Mejia’s false testimony presented at the pre-trial hearing…both Trutanich and Jacobs should have known that the testimony was ‘actually false,’” Judge Carter ruled. Cox’s testimony should have been excluded from the trial, the judge said.

Judge Carter ruled that Lewis’s testimony that the driver of the car was Jean Rivers was false, that Trutanich knew it was false, and that he failed to disclose that the driver of the car was Arlene McKay. The defense had contended that McKay, if she had been located, could have provided testimony that cast doubt on Lewis’s identification of Williams. Judge Carter said Mejia’s notes contained McKay’s address, an indication that “Mejia knew who McKay was.” Judge Carter noted that Trutanich’s failure to point out the identity of Arlene McKay was “deeply troubling.”

“Here, the false testimony regarding the true identity of [the driver of the car in which Lewis was riding] directly impacted the fairness of [Williams’s] trial, and now casts grave doubt” on the conviction, Judge Carter said. “Even according to Trutanich, Lewis’s testimony was the lynchpin of the case.”

Judge Carter noted that because Cox’s testimony should have been excluded, the only other testimony, in addition to Lewis’s identification, that implicated Williams was from Gardner. The judge noted that Gardner’s testimony had been impeached and that his testimony “probably was of little value to the jury.”

The judge noted, “Furthermore, the devastating impact of collective error becomes clearer by imaging what the jury would have thought if Trutanich would have pointed out the false testimony provided by Lewis and the incorrect testimony provided by Judge Shook, and if the jury had been instructed to completely disregard the testimony of Cox…If Trutanich had done so in accordance with his constitutional duty, the jury likely would have…rejected the credibility of the prosecution’s entire case.”

Williams was ultimately appointed a new lawyer for the retrial of the case. However, after two years, when the case was still dormant, ACLU attorney Cassandra Stubbs filed a motion to remove the lawyer, arguing that he had failed to do any significant work on the case. That motion was granted and new counsel was appointed who began working aggressively on the case.

In November 2020, George Gascon was elected Los Angeles County District Attorney. Among his campaign promises was to end the death penalty in Los Angeles County. On January 15, 2021, the prosecution dismissed the murder case against Williams.

Williams remained in prison for the Billingsley murder.

In 2017, the California State Bar instituted proceedings against Trutanich, accusing him of failing to disclose evidence to the defense and presenting false testimony.

Trutanich denied committing misconduct. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said, “I’m sure as hell not going to my grave and meeting my maker having hid information in a death penalty case. Never happened. Never happened. No. Not me.”

The disciplinary complaint was subsequently dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/22/2021
Last Updated: 4/22/2021
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1982
Convicted:1986
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Death
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No