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Eight years after prison officer killed on videotape, family still waits for trial


August 07, 2005
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Eight years after prison officer killed on videotape, family still waits for trial

By ROBERT TANNER
AP National Writer

SANTA BARBARA, Calif.- Scott Williams was the one son his father never had to spank, a teenager who joined the military reserves and earned a handful of honors, a man who married his high school sweetheart.

He believed in the criminal justice system, so much so that after serving as a Marine during the Persian Gulf War Williams took one of the rougher jobs in law enforcement - he became a federal prison guard.

Now Williams is remembered by co-workers not just for his service, but as a symbol of the worst that can happen to an officer and his family.

On April 3, 1997, an inmate strapped a homemade knife to each arm and jumped the 29-year-old officer in a prison hallway crowded with inmates and guards, cutting the young father's throat and leaving him to bleed to death. The attack and the melee that followed were captured by a surveillance camera.

Williams was eulogized by then-Attorney General Janet Reno. The local federal prosecutor noted the case would be watched by corrections officers everywhere.

Today, they're still watching.

The inmate charged with murder in Williams' slaying, Roy Green _ also known as Haneef Bilal _ has not yet gone to trial. Through many delays and courtroom twists, Green's attorneys have repeatedly questioned his mental competency while he has steadfastly maintained his innocence. The case is now going through a third round of hearings on Green's sanity, with the next scheduled later this month. An attorney who has defended Green acknowledges the process has been slow-moving, but says it's essential to protecting the defendant's rights.

Williams' relatives, meanwhile, understand that a trial might not result in a conviction. But they feel it's outrageous there's never been a full hearing of the evidence.

"Eight years of dragging this out. Continuing to torture us as the family that suffered the most," says Kristy Williams, Scott's widow, who has now worked on the case longer than she was married. "I owe it to my husband to follow through. And I will follow through to the end, for him."

She's had an extraordinarily long wait.

Most first-degree murder cases in federal courts take less than a year-and-a-half to prosecute _ the median last year was 15.8 months from indictment to jury verdict, according to the U.S. Administrative Office of the United States Courts. Death penalty cases take longer _ averaging 29.3 months until conviction for the 10 federal cases that resulted in a death penalty from 2000 through 2002, according to the Justice Department's statistics bureau.

So far, it's been eight years and four months since Scott Williams was killed. The indictment against Green was filed 88 months ago.

The prosecution of Williams's killing was one that his family and co-workers expected to move swiftly, and not just because they felt the evidence seemed so clear.

A week after his death, Reno vowed that Williams wouldn't be forgotten. "Our strength, our freedom, our prosperity, our opportunities exist today because of people like Scott Williams," she told thousands who gathered for a memorial service at Vandenberg Air Force Base. "Scott Williams is America."

A year after his death, then-U.S. Attorney Nora M. Manella said: "How the justice system deals with his killer will be watched by correctional officials across the nation. This office is determined to see that he never kills again." Green, sentenced to more than 20 years for a cocaine conviction, had already had three years added for attacking two correctional officers with his fists before he allegedly made the fatal assault.

That day began before dawn, Kristy Williams recalls, at the breakfast-and-lunch diner she and Scott ran in the small town near the U.S. Penitentiary at Lompoc, on the California coast a few hours drive north of Los Angeles.

They shared breakfast with their two daughters, the older one 6 and the baby just 11 months. Kristy didn't expect her husband home until late _ he'd volunteered to work a double shift, she says. She first found out something was wrong on the local evening news. Then came a call, a rush to the hospital.

The attack came at dinner when the prison hallway was filled with people. The attacker had strapped one sharpened locker rod to one arm, and one cell-made knife to the other, according to officers who were there. Scott Williams was hit first, struck from behind. The attacker then injured four other officers before finally being subdued.

Williams died at the hospital. Green was swept out of the prison that night to a Los Angeles jail, where he has remained ever since, except for a year-long stint at a federal medical center in North Carolina where his competency was assessed. The prison was locked down for weeks.

It took a year for a grand jury to indict Green. He pleaded innocent, and months later federal prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty. His first team of defense lawyers argued that IQ tests showed he was on the border of mental retardation _ though Green maintains he has no mental problems.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the mentally retarded cannot be executed.

"There are a lot of mental health issues, and those issues demand to be addressed," said one of Green's former defense attorneys, Dick Burr. "Not having insight into your condition is almost always a part of serious mental illness, especially untreated mental illness."

In 2001, U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall ruled Green was incompetent to stand trial, and sent him to a federal medical facility in North Carolina. A year later, doctors there found him competent. Green later fired his defense team, and his new team have again sought to have him declared incompetent.

Prosecutors say that since Williams' death, Green has repeatedly threatened to kill prison employees and was caught with two home-made knives, one made from a metal soap dish and another from a plastic light cover.

The new questions about competency, supposed to be decided by winter's end, have stretched out across the summer. The hopes of Williams' family and co-workers are couched amid skepticism and suspicions brewed over years of delay. They alternately blame the court, the Justice Department and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

"It seems like the judge is pro-defense, 100 percent," says Jim Williams, Scott's father, who took out full-page newspaper ads decrying delays in the case. He says Marshall is unwilling to move ahead on a death penalty case: "She's more than an obstacle. She's a roadblock, a total roadblock."

Burr, the former defense attorney, puts it more delicately: "This particular federal judge just doesn't move very quickly." Marshall did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Prison union officials say there's reason to believe that Green had come under the influence of militant Muslims, noting that he had been held in confinement near Mahmoud Abouhalima, one of four people convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

"There's a lot more to this case than meets the eye," said Barry Fredieu, an official with the local officers' union. "Does this have anything to do with terrorism cells? Does this have anything to do with right-wing Islam?"

Another federal inmate, who once shared a cell with Abouhalima in Leavenworth, Kan., wrote that the man he called "the terrorist" had filled his head with his calls for violence. "Time and time again I asked him _ almost begged him _ to stop telling me things he wanted to do to inmates and staff," wrote Lionel Johnson-Bey in a 2001 lawsuit over his incarceration that was ultimately dismissed.

Others say there were failures at the prison that created the opportunity for Williams' slaying.

A staff member had overheard two inmates discussing the likelihood of violence that day, and, per prison procedures, had turned in a memo, according to former corrections officer Keith Boley. But the information wasn't passed on to all officers, he said.

Prison officials would not comment on the case. Calls to the warden of the prison at the time went unreturned.

Green's family _ who also did not return messages left for them _ stand by him, according to local news reports. His mother, Wajeha Bilal, and his brother, Daude Sherrills, have been active in Los Angeles's Watts community. Sherrills made a name for himself in the mid-1990s, as a former gang member who helped negotiate a truce between warring Los Angeles gangs after the Rodney King riots.

Current defense attorneys for Green also did not return repeated phone calls.

Kristy Williams tells her story with a steely calm, but it doesn't last. Tears well up when she recalls waiting at the hospital, her 11-month-old daughter on her hip, when nurses wouldn't look her in the eye. "Nobody had to tell me," she says.

Her matter-of-fact manner returns as she discusses the road she's on. It fits a woman raised on a ranch, a woman who started the Williams' diner, who moved her daughters away from her hometown after the slaying so she and they wouldn't be seen by the neighbors as "that poor woman, those poor girls."

She's adamant that she's not angry and not bitter. It's not vengeance she talks about _ it's closure and justice.

She also knows that there's a great deal that's been lost.

"If you can imagine in an instant, in one instant, everything that you even thought about your life is not true now," she says. "Where you think you're going, you know? Who you will be with when ... you're sitting on your porch in your rocking chair. It's gone."

What's left, she says, is seeing through the legal aftermath to a verdict, to a declaration of guilt or innocence.




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