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Darryl Williams

Other Exonerations from Queens County, New York
At 2:55 p.m. on February 24, 2013, which was a Sunday, a white car drove up to the Stop and Stor storage facility in Queens, New York. The driver entered a passcode. The gate opened, but the car backed up.

One of the clerks at the facility, Beesham Deonarine, came out to help the driver. The driver parked the car and got out with another man. Deonarine would later tell police he had never seen either man before.

A few minutes later, Errol Ward buzzed two other men into the office. One of the men asked about renting a unit, and Ward contacted Deonarine on a walkie talkie and told him to show the men around. Deonarine and the two men walked out to the units. As they walked, one of the men, who wore a beige jacket, asked whether surveillance cameras were nearby. Deonarine said no.

After Deonarine unlocked a padlock to a unit, the man with the beige jacket used duct tape to cover Deonarine’s mouth and eyes and tie up his hands. They took $20 and the walkie talkie and locked him in the unit. The two men then returned to the office area and told Ward they weren’t interested in renting a unit.

Surveillance video captured the men out front of the office, where they appeared to meet with a driver of a white, police-style vehicle, which drove off without them. Ward found Deonarine locked in a unit about 15 minutes later. As that was occurring, according to the video, the two men tried unsuccessfully to get into the office.

Ward called the police. His initial description was of two Black men in their late 40s. “One male is six foot, had on a black skully hat, black jacket,” according to the description. “The other male had a brown hat and brown jacket. Both fled in a white Ford Crown Victoria with Pennsylvania plates.”

The driver of the white car had entered the security code for 49-year-old Darryl Williams, who had rented a small unit the previous Sunday, paying $68 in cash. In the rental application, Williams had listed a man named James “Chicco” Johnson as an alternate contact. Ward had processed the application, interacting with both men.

When the driver of the white car entered the code, Williams’s name and unit number flashed up on a screen, and after the robbery, Ward gave police this information and said Williams was one of the men involved.

On February 25, 2013, the police showed Ward a photo array that included Johnson, but he made no identification. They showed Deonarine a separate array that included Williams, whom he identified as a person he recognized.

Police arrested Williams on February 26, 2013, eventually charging him with first- and second-degree robbery, second-degree kidnapping, and first-degree unlawful imprisonment. Without reading Williams his Miranda rights, Detective Shawn Ward interviewed Williams and told him he was being arrested for a crime that took place at the Stop and Stor “last Sunday.” According to Ward, Williams said: “I was there. I wouldn’t do that. I’m on lifetime parole.”

Williams testified before a grand jury on March 1, 2013. He said that he had rented a unit on February 17 to store his mechanic’s tools, but that he was watching basketball at his apartment in Brooklyn during the time that the robbers hit the storage facility on February 24. His girlfriend, Valerie Sanders, also testified that they were at his apartment during that time period.

After his indictment, Williams began telling his attorney with the Legal Aid Society in Queens that he had additional evidence to support his alibi.

In a letter to his attorney, Williams wrote: “In addition, I had a phone conversation with my Landlord regarding the heat inside my apartment ’cause it was cold and I had to place pots of water on the stove to warm the apartment. My cell phones’ GPS system will [corroborate] these facts as well. Most importantly, why would I go to a storage facility to rent [a] box and provide my driver’s license with my current address on it; my social security number and my cell phone number, if I was going to rob the storage place?”

Williams’s image was captured by a security camera outside his house at 11:44 a.m., 1:36 p.m., and 4:32 p.m. on February 24. In addition, cellphone records also indicated that a phone belonging to Williams had made a 37-minute call to the landlord, Clarence Wilkens, beginning at 2:29 p.m. A clerk with Legal Aid told Williams’s attorney on August 20, 2013, that “triangulation” records, indicating the location of the cellphone at the time the call was made, were no longer available, because the carrier only kept these records for 90 days.

Williams was dissatisfied with the representation he received from his Legal Aid attorney. David Bart, who-was court-appointed, became his new attorney.

At Williams’s trial, in Queens County Supreme Court, Deonarine was unable to make an identification, but Ward identified Williams as the man in the beige jacket who had come into the store. In addition, Detective Ward said that Williams had admitted being at the storage facility on February 24.

Under cross-examination, Ward testified that he used the phrase “last Sunday,” during his interview with Williams, which took place on a Tuesday. Ward said it was clear that his questions referred to February 24, not February 17, but that Williams never actually said he was at the Stop and Stor on February 24.

Prosecutors also presented surveillance video from the storage facility taken on February 17 and 24. While the footage clearly captured Williams on February 17 at the counter as he filled out the paperwork, the footage from the following Sunday was less clear about the identities of the men who came into the office inquiring about renting a unit.

Bart did not present an alibi defense or introduce any cellphone records. Neither Wilkens nor Sanders testified. Instead, Bart pursued a defense based on misidentification, seeking to show that Ward and Deonarine had jumped to a false conclusion that Williams was involved in the crime because his passcode was entered by the driver of the white car. That conclusion, he suggested in closing arguments, led them to wrongfully identify Williams.

Williams had testified before the grand jury that it was possible Johnson or someone else knew the passcode, which was a combination of the storage unit number and his birthday. During closing arguments, Bart told jurors that it was easy to distinguish between Williams and the man in the beige jacket who was there a week later, because they had distinctive walks. Williams, he said, “waddles” and “kind of shuffles,” while the other man had a “very purposeful direct stride.”

“I suggest to you [that] you could tell a lot about a person by how they walk,” Bart said. “I suggest to you I have no evidence. I didn’t bring in experts on walking … I’m asking you to use your common sense.”

The prosecutor also urged jurors to look at the videos of the men walking. He said that when Williams had “the adrenaline running to commit the crime,” his gait was different than when he “casually strolled in to rent the unit.”

The jury convicted Williams on all four counts on February 27, 2014. He was sentenced on June 12, 2014, to 15 years in prison.

Prior to sentencing, Williams filed an unsuccessful pro se motion to vacate the verdict based on his attorney’s failure to hire an investigator to analyze the surveillance footage and compare it against images in the New York Police Department’s facial recognition database.

In his direct appeals, Williams was represented by Alexis Ascher of Appellate Advocates. She argued, among other things, that Williams was convicted based on insufficient evidence and that prosecutors failed to show that the duct tape used to restrain Deonarine was a dangerous weapon. The New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division affirmed the conviction on November 8, 2017.

Ascher continued representing Williams, and he asked her in 2019 to obtain a copy of his cellphone records from February 24, 2013. She subpoenaed the records from Sprint and discovered that it did retain tower locations for calls, despite what the Legal Aid clerk had originally reported. These records indicated that the call made by Williams to his landlord used a tower in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, which was about a half mile from Williams’s home but 10 miles from the Stop and Stor.

Ascher shared this information with Bart, who told her that he had no witnesses to place the cellphone in Williams’s hand at the time the call was made. But Williams’s girlfriend, Valerie Sanders, told Ascher that Williams was with her that day, and that she remembered him calling the landlord and talking with him about rent and other matters.

In 2021, Ascher hired Michael Nirenberg, a podiatrist and forensic gait analyst, to study the video footage. In a report dated February 8, 2022, Nirenberg said “forensic gait analysis provides limited support for the proposition that the figure in the questioned footage is not the subject in the reference footage, Darryl Williams.”

Ascher filed a motion to vacate Williams’s conviction on April 6, 2022, stating that the new cellphone records showed Williams was at home and on the phone with his landlord at the time of the robbery. The motion also said that Bart provided ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to use any cellphone records – including those that only showed a call but not the location of the phone – and to present expert testimony about gait analysis or mistaken witness identification based on unconscious transference of previous events.

In an affidavit accompanying the motion, Williams said his attorneys failed to properly investigate his case or keep him informed. “I did not commit this crime and had absolutely nothing to do with it,” he said.

The motion was initially reviewed by the Appeals Bureau of the Queens County District Attorney’s Office and then turned over to the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit for further investigation.

On November 17, 2022, the district attorney’s office filed a consent motion to vacate Williams’s conviction. “The People do not believe defendant has met his burden of proving his actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence,” the state’s motion said. “We agree with defendant, however, that there is a reasonable probability that, had the cell site location information been obtained prior to his trial, the result of these proceedings would have been more favorable to him.”

Judge Michelle Johnson of Queens County Supreme Court threw out the conviction and dismissed the charges against Williams on November 17, 2022, and he was also released from prison that day.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 12/16/2022
Last Updated: 12/16/2022
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:Kidnapping, Other Violent Felony
Reported Crime Date:2013
Sentence:15 years
Age at the date of reported crime:49
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No