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Williams found guilty of involuntary manslaughter

  • Defense attorney Justin Kuehn (center) talks with family members after the verdict in the murder trial of London Williams Thursday at the Randolph County Courthouse. Williams was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

    Defense attorney Justin Kuehn (center) talks with family members after the verdict in the murder trial of London Williams Thursday at the Randolph County Courthouse. Williams was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
    Pete Spitler/Herald Tribune

By Pete Spitler
Posted on 1/26/2017, 9:51 PM

After three days of courtroom proceedings, including two of witness testimony, the jury in the London Williams murder trial returned a guilty verdict on involuntary manslaughter on Thursday at the Randolph County Courthouse.

Williams, 27, of Rockwood, cut 26-year-old victim Timothy J. "T.J." Michael, of Chester, twice with a 3-inch folding knife during a verbal and physical altercation at Bernasek"s Bar and Grill on June 26, 2016. Michael later died from his injuries at Memorial Hospital of Chester.

The two were friends and former co-workers. During his testimony on Wednesday, forensic pathologist Dr. Kamal Sabharwal, who works for the St. Louis County Medical Office and performed Michael"s autopsy, said toxicology results showed Michael had alcohol, diazepam (Valium) and marijuana in his system on the night in question.

Sabharwal said he could not speak on how the three drugs specifically affected Michael, as each person"s tolerance for drugs is different.

He also stated he could not determine who was the aggressor – Williams or Michael – based upon the autopsy report.

Courtroom testimony from witnesses, however, offered differing views on the amount of punches Williams sustained from Michael, how many times Williams went to his car, both the stance and position of Michael when he was stabbed and whether Williams"s actions in using the knife were justifiable.

The jury of 10 women and two men, none of whom were African-American (as is Williams), were given the options of guilty of first-degree murder, not guilty, guilty of second-degree murder and guilty of involuntary manslaughter to consider prior to beginning deliberations.

According to "Involuntary manslaughter usually refers to an unintentional killing that results from recklessness or criminal negligence, or from an unlawful act that is a misdemeanor or low-level felony such as a DUI."

A juror - who asked to remain anonymous - was later asked by the Herald Tribune after the verdict on what was key for the jury in arriving at its decision.

"We felt that though there were three altercations before the defendant went to the car, he never struck the victim," the juror said. "When he arrived at the car, he held up the weapon and announced "this is over... its ended."

"The victim still kept coming after warnings and there were no witnesses to the fatal wound to see how it happened, creating reasonable doubt."

The jury received 26 pages of instructions and deliberated for three hours and 15 minutes before giving notice at 2:05 p.m. it had reached a unanimous decision.

Involuntary manslaughter is a Class 3 felony with a punishment range of two to five years in prison, is not a mandatory sentence and is probation-eligible. First-degree murder is a Class X felony punishable by 20 to 60 years in prison.

"I don"t know yet, to be honest," defense attorney Justin Kuehn said after the verdict, on if he would request probation at the March 31 sentencing hearing. "I have to talk to London about that."

About two hours into deliberation, the jury sent word that it had some questions. Kuehn told media that the jury wanted a transcript of Williams"s statements to police at the Randolph County Jail, but it wasn"t available.

"I was expecting them to ask to see the video, but they didn"t ask," Kuehn said.

Kuehn , who was assisted by Derek Siegel on the defense team, went on to explain that the jury wanted further clarification on the proposition regarding justification.

He also doesn"t expect an appeal.

"I was expecting (the jury) to meet somewhere in the middle," Kuehn said. "And I was hoping that somewhere was involuntary manslaughter."

After the reading of the verdict, Randolph County State"s Attorney Jeremy Walker told Associate Circuit Court Judge Gene Gross he had no issue with reducing Williams"s bond from $1 million to $25,000, with 10 percent cash applied at $2,500.

Both Walker and Kuehn said they expected Williams to post bond and be released from Randolph County Jail, where he had remained for the past seven months.

"I expect my client to post bond," Kuehn said. "He"s got an innocent child at home he wants to hug."

When asked how he believed Williams felt after the verdict was read, Kuehn said his impression was Williams was "relieved."

"This is a verdict that allows his life to go on," he said. "He"ll be able to see his kids grow up."

For Walker, the end result is a conviction, but on the least punishable of the guilty possibilities.

"I"ve got empathy for T.J."s family because he"s passed away and empathy for London and his family," said Walker, who later stated he personally spent about 150 hours on the case.

Walker, who said he wasn"t disappointed in the verdict, told media afterward that he knew there were potential problems with the case in two key areas:

The first was that none of the witnesses saw the fatal stab wound and secondly, the inconsistent statements from the six key witnesses - Rodney First, Chelsea Schroeder, Jacob Fogle, Donald "Donnie" Weaver, Jason McDonough and Williams"s brother, Donavan Richardson - on what happened after Williams and Weaver mutually agreed to exit the bar to go fight and Michael intervened.

Williams himself decided not to testify.

During his time on the stand, Weaver said the initial altercation between himself and Williams "was never an actual fight" and himself, Michael and Williams had all gone to school together and "were supposed to be brothers."

In his 40-minute closing statement, Walker went through each of the verdict possibilities on a slide presentation, while honing in on the interpretation of "lawful justification."

"Only if a person reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or another," he said.

Walker also offered the Google definition of "reasonable," which was stated to be "As much as is appropriate or fair; moderate."

"You all have kids," Walker told the jury. "If your kids start hitting each other, do they have a right to go to the kitchen drawer and get a knife?"

Walker brought up portions of Schroeder"s testimony in that Michael was not in a fighting stance when he was stabbed and while discussing "great bodily harm," said there was nothing to show Michael was causing great bodily harm to Williams at the time of the stabbing.

Walker insisted the dynamic of the altercation changed when Michael allegedly made the comment "Who are you to call Donnie an addict when you don"t even see your kids?" and that made Williams mad enough to go to his car to get the knife.

"No further physicality was going on to justify the fear of imminent death or great bodily harm," Walker said.

Walker went into "consciousness of guilt" and how Williams"s actions after the stabbing were "reasonable and appropriate."

"Why did he immediately leave the scene?" Walker asked. "Why did he throw the knife into thick vegetation? Then decide to do laundry at 12:30 a.m.?"

Chester Police Sgt. Joe Jany testified on Tuesday that several articles of clothing Williams was wearing that night were in the washing machine when law enforcement arrived at Williams"s residence.

"Good people make bad decisions," Walker said in his conclusion. "We have proven beyond a reasonable doubt London did just that."

In his closing, Kuehn noted he "didn"t feel the impact" when watching witness testimony and also noted the discrepancies between what the witnesses said on the stand and their statements to police seven months earlier.

"What was said to the police was the most dependable and reliable thing in this case," he said.

Kuehn told a story about a fishing trip with his son during the Independence Day holiday last year and how his recollection of specific details from that day has faded as time passed.

"The bottom line is you"re going to hear different things from witnesses coming in seven months after the incident," he said.

Kuehn stated "grabbing a knife is a lot different than using one" and that it was "silly" to believe Williams went to get a knife after Michael allegedly made the comment about Williams being a bad dad.

Kuehn brought up the Second Amendment in how he had a constitutional right to bear arms and a right to pull a weapon to issue a warning if he felt he was being threatened.

"This is something that happened very fast," he said. "It was a split-second decision."

Kuehn also referred back to Schroeder"s testimony in that Williams, after making it apparent he had the knife, said "Get the (expletive) away from me, I"m done with this, (expletive) you guys."

"T.J. lunged in first and said "If you"re going to cut me, (expletive) cut me" and then goes to punch Williams," Kuehn said.

Kuehn then accused Walker of being "overly-theatrical" in his Wednesday questioning of Richardson, who originally told police that Michael advanced at Williams with his hands behind him, not up and in front.

But Richardson testified in court that it looked like Michael had his hands up as if he were going to hit Williams, or to take the knife.

Michael then grabbed his head and said "I can"t believe you cut me."

After pointing out that Richardson had given a different version of the facts, Walker point-blank asked him if he had had time to come up with a version of the story that would be more favorable to his brother.

Richardson eventually admitted yes.

"I don"t think that has a place in the courtroom," Kuehn said of Walker"s tactics. "That"s theatrics. It"s how you make truth up."

In a six-minute rebuttal, Walker equated parents shopping with their kids and trying to keep them distracted from the candy aisle to Kuehn allegedly trying to distract the jury by making the case about Walker"s behavior.

"T.J. deserves the right verdict," Walker said to the jury, after noting Michael"s rights to self-defense were "glossed over" during the case. "T.J. deserves justice. T.J. did not deserve to die."

The trial was Chester"s first murder trial since 2004.