BENEFITING: ST MARKS CHURCH IN THE BOWERY
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Ever since I left New Orleans, one story in particular has stuck with me. A young man, Robert Williams, was, by my review of the evidence, wrongfully convicted of mugging an intern and a volunteer in 2008, and he was sentenced to 99 years. Yes, 99 years with no chance for parole for a theft of $150. Robert’s family has had my name and number ever since I met them in the hall of the courthouse in 2008, and I’ve tried to support them with his appeals over the years. His best chance for exoneration is coming up later this fall. We’ve pulled together a strong legal team, I believe, but they need support. Prayers, airline miles, money, all of it. I’m writing to ask for help.
Back in 2008, I was running the rebuilding operation for the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana in New Orleans. By 8 one morning in January all the crew chiefs and volunteers had left the warehouse where we stored our trucks and supplies. They were headed to worksites all over the city.
Having completed that part of my day’s job, I was headed out to grab a coffee and head uptown to the diocesan offices to try to appease the accountant or to meet a new potential homeowner or to check progress at one of the houses. A normal morning. Before leaving, however, I got a call from an intern saying that he and a volunteer had just been mugged.
This intern was the youngest on our crew by at least a few years. He was taking a gap year between high school and college and spent much of his time picking up supplies from the various Home Depots of New Orleans and running supplies to the worksites. His task that morning was to take a bunch of lumber as well as a volunteer from Virginia over to a house in the 7th ward that we were about to start framing.
Over the phone, the intern told me he didn’t want to stay at the house, so I asked him to meet me at a nearby McDonald’s and to call the police and have them meet us there as well. Once we all gathered, the volunteer and intern recounted walking into the house to see where they’d put the lumber, and turning around to go back to the truck when a man with a gun appeared and told them that they couldn’t be in his neighborhood without paying him. He took their cash—not their phones or credit cards—getting $10 from the intern and another $140 from the volunteer. He told them not call the police, and left.
I should interject here that there were frequent muggings in New Orleans at this time because the many undocumented day laborers working on homes all over the city were paid in cash and lacked bank accounts. These workers were robbed so often and so easily that they were called “walking ATMs.”
At the McDonald’s meeting with me and the police, both the intern and volunteer described the mugger as a young, light-skinned black man, medium height, medium build, wearing dark jeans, dark shoes and a white jacket. That was hardly an uncommon description in New Orleans, so I had little hope that the perpetrator would be caught. The police took everyone’s phone numbers and said they’d be in touch.
A few hours later, a detective called the intern and volunteer. There’d been a car jacking by someone who matched the description, and she wanted to see if the intern and volunteer could come to the scene of that crime to ID the suspect. The intern and volunteer were allowed to converse while at the scene, and the adult volunteer assured the young intern that the suspect looked like the right person. They both made positive IDs.
The young man that was arrested, Robert Williams, lived on the other side of town from Duels St. where the robbery took place. When he was arrested, he had a paycheck in his pocket from his job working on the river, also far from Duels St. The police never found the weapon used in the robbery or the stolen cash. There were never charges filed in the supposed car-jacking.
Williams was charged with two counts of armed robbery and pled not guilty. To this day, he and his family say that he’s innocent, and I believe them.
I had actually been in a conversation with one of the detectives on the case that day. The detective told me that she wasn't worried about getting the wrong person because everyone in that neighborhood was a criminal anyway so if you get them now or later, it’s not important. Because I was in full Iowa form, trying to be helpful and make everything okay, I didn’t argue.
I don’t think that the volunteer or intern intended any wrong; I think they were highly suggestible; I think their memories were impacted by being shown a “criminal” first instead of a line-up, I think they struggled to distinguish one black man from another, I think they believed that the police and the prosecutors honestly had the city’s best interest in their hearts and would never knowingly convict the wrong person. Unfortunately, they were wrong.
I attended one of Robert Williams’s preliminary hearings, where the holes in the case became clear to me. The witness statements described a light-skinned black man wearing jeans and a white jacket. Robert is a dark-skinned black man with a full mouth of gold teeth and was, on the day of the robbery, wearing blue jeans with large brightly-colored patches and a white jacket with red writing and stripes. These are all details that would be hard to miss. His cell phone records likely show that he was at home with his mother on the other side of town at the time of the robbery, but these records were not given to his defense team because the phone was in his mom’s name (like mine was for an embarrassing number of years).
There are so many problems with the case: the bad IDs, the inconsistent descriptions, the absence of either the gun or the cash, the inadmissible cell phone data. I’m happy to speak with you in more detail about all of these problems if that would be helpful. What matters for now is that, despite the lack of evidence, Robert Williams was convicted and received a sentence of 99 years, with no chance for parole. The judge wrote at length in his verdict that he was giving the maximum sentence because the crime targeted “Good Samaritans.” In other words, this long sentence was warranted because the victims were church people, not the usual targets at the time, day laborers.
My conscience continues to be burdened by the role that the Episcopal Church unwittingly played in this story. This kind of robbery was sadly common in New Orleans in 2007 and 2008. The only reason that this case got the attention that it got was that it was white church volunteers who were (accidentally) targeted. It no doubt would have remained unsolved and Robert Williams would still be working on the river had the victims had not been white church volunteers. And even if Robert had been charged with robbing undocumented workers, the sentence could have been as “short” as fourteen years, not the 99 years imposed on Robert for robbing white church volunteers.
I have been trying to support the family in its efforts to appeal Robert’s conviction for the past several years, and the appeals process continues to be slow but steady. Robert acted his own counsel on an federal appeal filed this month to keep that appeal door open, but he needs a strong, outside legal team. His family has hired a private investigator, and are working to line up a strong legal team. They have spent thousands on this case already, and have few resources left--Robert signed over his last paycheck that was in his pocket when he was arrested to help pay for the private investigator. The detective has helped line up local counsel, but additional legal support is needed, especially people with experience in this field who are based in Louisiana, and we still need at least $10,000 to cover the legal expenses and court costs. Donations here will be routed through the rector's discretionary account of my parish in New York (St. Mark's in the Bowery) and will be used to cover legal expenses with the case.