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Grant Williams

Other New York Murder Exonerations
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At about 6 p.m. on April 5, 1996, 20-year-old Shdell Lewis and a friend were walking outside the Stapleton Houses apartment complex in Staten Island, New York. A man wearing a black jacket and a baseball cap approached them, walked past, then turned and began firing a gun. Lewis tried to run, but was shot several times in the back and torso. He died that night at a local hospital. The friend, known as Witness A, ran away.

Officers Scott McCarthy and Donna Garrison of the New York Police Department were at the apartment complex on an unrelated call when they heard the shots. They quickly drove toward the shooting, saw a man with a gun in his hand, got out of their car and gave chase. The man ran into the complex, through a breezeway into the courtyard, and then into another building, avoiding capture. As the man ran, he dropped his baseball cap, which had a logo of the Wu-Tang Clan, the popular hip hop group from Staten Island.

McCarthy then put out a description of the shooter on his police radio: “male black, round face, stocky build, 5’5” tall, wearing a black jacket and a baseball hat.”

At the crime scene, Detective Robert Walsh interviewed a man, known as “Witness 1,” who said there had been an ongoing “drug turf war” for control of the Stapleton complex, with several recent shootings. He said Lewis’s shooting might have been in retaliation for an incident involving Lewis and a man Witness 1 knew only as “BooBoo.”

Walsh ran the nickname through the department’s computers and came up with a hit: 25-year-old Grant Williams. He did not resemble the description provided by McCarthy. Williams was over six feet tall with a thin build and light-colored skin. But Walsh pulled together a photo array, including Williams and fillers that met the description of “light skinned, short hair, some facial hair.” As a later report would note, “The photo spread was not created using fillers, or a subject, that would match any description that had been provided of the ‘shooter’ by any witness. At the time of this identification procedure, there is no documentation, nor any indication, that Grant Williams had been named as the shooter.”

Separately, three persons approached police at the crime scene. One of them said he had seen the shooting. They were taken to the police station. The witness, known as Witness 2, and Officer McCarthy each looked at the photo array Walsh assembled, and both identified Williams as the shooter. Walsh’s notes did not contain any information on the instructions he gave the witnesses or the manner in which he displayed the photos.

Just before midnight, Walsh visited Lewis’s family at the Stapleton Houses to update them on the investigation. Witness A, although not related by blood to Lewis, had been raised by his family, and he and Lewis considered themselves brothers. At some point during the visit, Witness A told the police that he was with Lewis at the time of the shooting and knew the parties involved. When the police said they were looking for Williams, Witness A said that Williams wasn’t the shooter.

Police issued an arrest warrant for Williams, but they could not locate him. He was eventually arrested in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on October 7, 1996, on a parole violation, extradited to New York on October 11, 1996, and charged with second-degree murder.

In December 1996, Williams’s attorney, Felix Gilroy, moved to dismiss the indictment. The motion said that the state had exculpatory information about Williams – Witness A’s statement to police – but had not presented it to the grand jury. The Richmond County District Attorney’s Office investigated and learned that Walsh had not put a statement from Witness A in the case file.

In its response, the state wrote that prosecutors talked with Walsh. He said that Witness A had first told police that he did not see who shot Lewis. Then he said it wasn’t Williams. Walsh said he asked Witness A to come to the police station and look at photos, but Witness A refused to cooperate.

Gilroy continued to pursue this motion. On October 1, 1997, during a routine hearing on the case in Richmond County Supreme Court, Witness A appeared, provided his name and other personal information, and gave a sworn statement about what he had seen during the shooting and what he had told police that night. Justice Leonard Rienzi told prosecutors to turn over the police reports and to investigate Witness A’s claim. A week later, on October 7, 1997, Williams filed another motion to dismiss.

In its response, the state said it had not known Witness A’s name until he appeared in court. The response said Witness A gave Walsh conflicting testimony. It also included an affidavit from Walsh. The detective admitted speaking with Witness A, but now he said that the witness “merely told him that he was ‘with the victim when the shooting began… he ran … and never looked in the direction of the shots being fired, and that he never saw the person who was firing the shots.’”

But Walsh’s affidavit also said that when he told the family they were looking for a person with the nickname “BooBoo,” Witness A blurted out, “No, it wasn’t him.”

The court denied Williams’s motion to dismiss. His trial began on November 13, 1997 in Richmond County Supreme Court. While the state presented the autopsy results and a ballistics report about bullet casings recovered outside the apartment complex, there was no physical or forensic evidence tying Williams to the shooting. Prosecutors used the ball cap to connect Williams, presenting evidence that Williams was friends with members of the Wu-Tang Clan and worked at their recording studio in Staten Island.

The state’s two eyewitnesses were McCarthy and Witness 2. Both men identified Williams as the shooter. Walsh testified about the investigation.

Williams did not testify. Neither did Witness A. But two other witnesses testified for the defense that Williams was not the shooter. One, a woman known as Witness 5, said police came to her apartment and said they were looking for Williams. Witness 5 said she had seen the shooting and Williams wasn’t the shooter. The police returned to the apartment several times while they were searching for Williams, but Witness 5 said the police never asked her again about what she saw.

Walsh testified that this was untrue. He said that when he talked with the witness, she told him she had not seen the shooting. But that interview wasn’t written in his report, Walsh acknowledged. Instead, he only reported interviewing the woman’s sister.

A man known as Witness 6 also testified that he saw the shooting from the first-floor balcony of his apartment. He said Williams wasn’t the shooter. The witness said he had told police about this on April 11, 1996, after he was arrested on unrelated drug charges. But prosecutors pushed back against that account, calling Walsh as a rebuttal witness. Walsh said he had checked his case folder and found no reports detailing statements Witness 6 made to detectives.

In closing arguments, the prosecutor said Witness 5 and Witness 6 were not to be believed, because they were telling their stories for the first time and had never spoken with police.

The jury began deliberations on November 24, 1997. The next afternoon, which was the day before Thanksgiving, jurors told the presiding judge, Justice Stephen Rooney, that they were hopelessly deadlocked. He instructed them to keep deliberating. They returned an hour later with a guilty verdict on second-degree murder.

After the verdict but prior to sentencing, Williams and his attorney continued searching for the existence of the debriefing report of Witness 6 and filed a motion to set aside the verdict. Combing through Walsh’s notes, the attorney found a brief mention that Witness 6 had been debriefed by another detective on April 11, 1996.

That detective’s notes said in part: “Witness was standing F/O 27 Warren. Witness was walking through walkway and heard two shots, then saw Shdell run into street and ran back and saw M/B fire 3 more shots into Shdell’s back. Then saw M/B running and saw one male and one female cop running after perp. Will look at photos.”

Despite this disclosure, Williams’s motion for a new trial was denied. On January 22, 1997, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Williams filed several unsuccessful appeals in New York courts, including one that challenged the manner in which Walsh created the photo arrays. He also tried to conduct DNA testing on the hat, but the evidence had been destroyed.

Around 2013, Williams contacted attorney Irving Cohen, who began a re-examination of the evidence. After an investigation that included more than 12 affidavits attesting to Williams’s innocence, Cohen took his findings to the Richmond County District Attorney and asked the office to review the conviction.

The review began that year. In 2019, the office’s newly created Conviction Integrity Review Unit took over. Investigators and attorneys interviewed 50 people in seven states and at five prisons or jails. Williams, who was paroled on October 15, 2019, was interviewed twice while in prison.

In a report released on July 22, 2021, District Attorney Michael McMahon said, “Given the clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence in this case, we have demonstrated that Grant Williams is innocent of the crimes he was ultimately convicted of and which forced him to unjustly spend more than two decades in jail.”

The report said the case’s problems were legion. First, Walsh and others created an inherently misleading photo array that assumed Williams was a suspect, despite witnesses giving a different description of the shooter and an absence of any witness statement that placed Williams near the shooting. Compounding the photo array was the issue of cross-racial misidentification. McCarthy and Witness 2 are white; Williams is Black.

Second, Walsh’s inadequate record-keeping didn’t accurately reflect who he interviewed and what these persons said. This allowed him to shade his testimony in a manner to help prosecutors discredit Williams’s witnesses.

The conviction-review team was able to track down Witness A. He said that he and Lewis knew Williams. At the time, they were rival drug dealers in the Stapleton complex, and that Lewis would have never allowed Williams to “walk straight up to them and catch them from behind.” Witness A said that when the shooting started, he and Lewis ran in different directions; he didn’t know Lewis was hit until later. He acknowledged that he was initially not very cooperative with the detectives who showed up at his family’s apartment, but after they said they were going to arrest Williams, he began to protest. He said he explained to the detectives that he was with Lewis, that he knew Williams – who was tall, thin and light-skinned – and that the shooter was darker, shorter and stouter, a stranger he had never seen before.

McCarthy, the officer who identified Williams, told the district attorney’s office that he couldn’t remember details of the photo array but that he believed his testimony was accurate. Walsh said he had no memory of the case.

Witness 2 told investigators he could not recall how the photo array was placed before him. He said his identification was accurate. Although at some point, he had recanted his testimony in an affidavit prepared by Cohen’s legal team, he told the review team that he wasn’t sure why he signed it and that he “felt rushed and didn’t read the statement.”

Investigators also interviewed Witness 1, whose initial statement about an altercation between “BooBoo” and Lewis led Walsh to focus on Williams. Witness 1 said he told police at the time that he didn’t recognize the shooter. In December 1997, Witness 1 was arrested on drug charges. He said detectives threatened him and said that if he “didn’t fully cooperate on the Williams case he would go away forever.”

He changed his story and implicated Williams but never testified before the grand jury. He was expected to testify at trial under a cooperation agreement and was kept apart from Williams at the jail. But Witness 1 never testified. He told the review team that he received threats while in jail and decided “it was not worth his life to lie and be a snitch.”

The review team also found five additional witnesses to the shooting who said that Williams was not involved. One of these witnesses had been on the defense list to testify, but she was only 15 years old at the time, and her mother would not let her take the stand. In closing arguments, prosecutors used her absence to raise further questions about Williams’s defense.

Williams had hoped to present an alibi defense at his trial that he was at the nearby Wu-Tang Recording Studio at the time of the shooting. His alibi witness, known as Witness 12, told investigators that he, Williams and others were at the studio all night, and that they learned of the shooting when a man came in and told them Lewis had been killed. Witness 12 said he was prepared to testify but was arrested on federal drug charges prior to the trial and unable to reach Williams or his attorney.

On the day the report was issued, McMahon filed motions in Richmond County Supreme Court to vacate Williams’s conviction and dismiss his charge. He said, “Given the overwhelming amount of exculpatory evidence presented for the first time in this review, as well as a totality of the investigative circumstances in this case, which in several instances defy what we now accept as best practices, we now believe Mr. Williams to actually be innocent and conclude that our justice system failed him.”

Judge Wayne Ozzi granted the motions.

Williams said, “Everybody makes mistakes. I’m not holding grudges, I’m not bitter, I’m not mad at nobody. At one time I was mad, but then as I matured, I educated myself in prison, I got my degree and I realized that mistakes happen so I can’t move forward without holding on to the mistakes and letting it ruin me mentally.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 8/18/2021
Last Updated: 8/18/2021
State:New York
County:Richmond
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1996
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No