Victor Williams goes on trial Monday at the Flagler County courthouse on charges that could send him to prison for the rest of his life.
He was in court this morning as lawyers for the defense and the prosecution argued a final pre-trial motion and jockeyed over details on what the jury may and may not hear from witnesses. Intricate details but with potentially huge consequences for Williams, who is trying to limit his punishment to 10 to 15 years, rather than end up with a life term without parole.
The 43-year-old resident of 12 Big Bear Lane in Palm Coast faces a charge of drugging and raping a 16-year-old boy, a first degree felony punishable by life. He is also charged with unlawful sexual activity with a minor, a second-degree felony punishable by 15 years in prison, and having sex with an individual without revealing that he is infected by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That’s a third degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. All three charges stem from the same one-night encounter with the alleged victim, on Sept. 10, 2018, at Williams’s B-Section house.
Williams is not disputing that he had sex with the teen. So from the start, he is conceding to a crime that could send him to prison for at least 15 years, though a relatively clean criminal background generally leads to a less severe sentence. (Williams was arrested in Volusia on charges of soliciting a minor by computer, attempting molestation and traveling to meet a minor. The first two charges were dismissed. In January a jury found him not guilty of the third.)
So the trial will be fought over the first charge: not whether sex took place, but whether it was consensual, and whether the teen was drugged or not.
Under Florida law, it doesn’t matter whether sex with a minor is consensual. Either way, it’s illegal. It’s either rape or statutory rape. But statutory rape could downgrade the offense to a second-degree felony. So for Williams’s defense, it’s the difference between life in prison as opposed to a maximum of 15 years. If he is found guilty on the other charges and the judge is in a particularly punishing mood, Williams could face the maximum 35 years, to be served consecutively, but that’s rare, it’s still not life. With the year he’s already served and early release for good behavior, he could yet see a few years’ freedom.
The defense faces many challenges, not least of them finding a jury that isn’t prejudiced against gays in a county where–in the most empirical reflection of Flagler’s position on the matter–63 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2008. Jurors are culled from those voter rolls. (The amendment was invalidated by a federal judge in 2014.) In death penalty cases, lawyers spend much of their time during jury selection weeding out jurors who are either opposed to the death penalty or too enthusiastically for it. In Williams’s jury selection on Monday, attorneys on both sides will be looking to weed out jurors on both sides of the LGBT spectrum of prejudices.
Williams is being defended by Assistant Public Defender Regina Nunnally and prosecuted by Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark.
Williams’s challenge beyond that will be to convince the jury that he didn’t drug the teen, that the teen sought him out, that it wasn’t their first encounter, and that Williams had spoken to him about his HIV status. Nunnally told Circuit Judge Terence Perkins today that Williams would testify, as would Daniel Buffington, a Tampa pharmacologist and toxicologist and expert witness who intends to dispute the prosecution’s claim that the boy was drugged at the time of the encounter.
It’s a steep challenge. Nunnally in arguments over pre-trial motions has already announced her strategy. She will attempt to show that the teen not only sought out Williams but that he was in control of his faculties at the time of the encounter (even though he was passed out the next morning), that he did not speak of the encounter as anything aggressive until a day had passed and he was seeking to evade his mother’s anger at what would have been the latest of a series of such escapades. So he came up with a story of being drugged raped by the man he’d sought out for drugs and sex.
But if Nunnally gets to make those arguments, she’ll have to make them in isolation, not in the context of the teen’s life up to that point. Perkins has already ruled on a series of motions strictly limiting the scope of the defense’s range essentially to the 24 hours surrounding the Sept. 10, 2018 encounter. That rules out of bounds any of the teen’s history, unless the lawyers somehow open the door to that during testimony.
So while the judge is allowing the revelation that the teen had an account on Grindr, the dating app for gays, bi-sexual and transgender people, and that the teen used it to find Williams, the judge is not allowing revelations that the teen had been using the app for a year. The judge is allowing revelations that marijuana, Xanax and alcohol were in the teen’s blood stream when he was tested after the encounter. But he is not allowing revelations that the teen had had issues with illegal drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamines, and prescription drugs long before his encounter with Williams. The judge is allowing revelations about the teen’s issues with his parents at the time of the encounter–his sneaking out of the house to meet Williams, his step-father finding him passed out on the steps to the house the next day, his issues of truthfulness with his mother that day. But the judge isn’t allowing revelations of a similar pattern pre-dating the encounter with Williams.
The teen’s behavior is not at issue: he did not commit a crime by meeting with Williams, though Williams did so by meeting with the teen. Williams’s assumptions about the boy’s age are irrelevant: whether the boy told him he was of age or not is not a defense. But Williams will have no defense if Nunnally is not able to attack the credibility of the teen–in essence, do everything she can to blame the victim without seeming to do so. In fact, almost the entirety of Perkins’s rulings keeping out this or that evidence about the teen’s past is designed to prevent the defense from building an accusatory case about the boy through essentially prejudicial inferences about his past behaviors.
The testimony of Buffington, the pharmacologist, is designed to be a veiled attack on the teen’s credibility. An affidavit Buffington wrote about the teen was not so veiled, though it was based largely on documented evidence gathered by law enforcement, medical tests, medical history, a social worker and others. Buffington and Nunnally prepared a series of slides to accompany his testimony. The slides are based in part on the affidavit. Today’s motion by the prosecution was to prevent several elements of that slide presentation from being presented to the jury. Clark, the prosecutor, in essence turned editor before Perkins and Nunnally, with Buffington sitting between them, and slide by slide, at times line by line, rejected this or that wording, this or that inclusion of history, facts or medical articles not authored by Buffington. And for the most part, Perkins ruled in the prosecution’s favor.
“He gets to support his opinions and relate it to relevant evidence,” Perkins said of Buffington, “but he doesn’t get to comment on either the veracity or urge the jury to accept or reject the testimony of any specific witness. He can testify as to what he’s relying on. That’s all.”
So Buffington will not get to relate the fact that the teen told a social worker and a Child Protection Team interviewer that he’d used the Grindr app “frequently to solicit older adult men for alcohol and illicit substances,” as Buffington wrote in his affidavit, or that, after he made arrangements to meet Williams that night, that he “knowingly and voluntarily consumed a small amount of alcohol, marijuana and alprazolam,” commonly known as Xanax.”
The pharmacologist’s statements of fact based on evidence admitted at trial will be permissible. His speculative conclusions and tactical quote marks, placed around many words in such a way as to telegraph Buffington’s doubt, will not be. The teen, he wrote, “has illogically alleged that Williams waited until he was ‘unconscious’ to perform a sexual act and that he did not provide consent. Given that this was the first time that Williams had met [the alleged victim], he would have no baseline awareness of [the teen’s] level of communication, demeanor, cognitive status, attentiveness, or history of substance abuse.” In fact, and based on revelations at previous hearings, it was not the first time that the boy had met Williams. He had met him previously to get pot or alcohol–and the prosecution will contend that that’s precisely what the teen intended to do that September evening: seek out pot and alcohol from an adult with access to both, not sex.
The trial begins Monday with jury selection before Perkins at 9 a.m. in Courtroom 401 at the Flagler County courthouse.