Prosecutors generally begin putting on their case to a jury with their chief witness: the alleged victim, assuming the victim is alive.
The teen Victor Williams, 43, is accused of drugging and raping a year ago in Palm Coast, 16 at the time, 17 now, took the stand this morning and for the next few hours, with a break for lunch, spoke of what took place the night of September 10, 2018, into the morning of September 11, after he’d gone to Williams’s house, not far from his own in the B-Section, ostensibly to drink alcohol and smoke some weed.
They’d spent times together several times before at Williams’s house since the boy had gotten an account on Grindr, the dating app for gay, bi-sexual and transgender men, where he’d passed himself off as an 18 year old. But they’d meet just to drink and smoke, since adults could provide the boy with either. Williams, the boy said, knew from the start that he was 15 or 16. The boy, on the other hand, never knew that Williams was HIV positive.
That September night, the boy drank a small amount of a margarita Williams had prepared for him, half a glass or so of Four Loko, the malt liquor, smoked weed, and he’d taken an orange pill, Xanax, that Williams had offered. The boy then says he “blacked out” twice over the course of the night, finding himself both times at the receiving end of Williams’s sexual ministrations in a couple of different ways, and without his consent.
Williams then dropped off the boy back at his home on his way to work. The boy’s step-father found him on the front porch, passed out, took a picture, texted the picture to his wife–the boy’s biological mother–and only then, the boy’s mother left work, came home, and carried the boy to his bed, staying with him a while before going back to work. There’d been tension in the house over the boy’s drinking and related issues, though he says the family had been accepting of his lifestyle. The boy didn’t speak of his encounter with Williams until that night when, in the shower he began remembering the previous night and realized, in his words, that he’d been raped.
“When I got to the shower that’s when I realized my butt was hurting and I saw the scrapes that were on me and that’s when I started to process and remember the things that had happened before,” he said on the stand.
“Did you ever agree to have sex with Victor Williams when you were at his house on September 10?” the prosecutor asked him.
“Did you want him to do those things to you?”
“When you went over there on September 10 did you intend to have sex with him?”
“What was your intention?”
“To drink and smoke and talk.”
“Like you’d done before?”
He had been texting Williams earlier in the evening, and would do so even after his revelation of the allegation to his mother. He said he wanted to go back to Williams’s house the next day–to confront him, possibly to hurt him (though Williams is considerably bigger than the boy, who has a slight frame: Williams is about a foot taller). He didn’t want the police to be involved, but his mother “took matters in her own hands,” in the defense attorney’s words, and sought out Williams. The boy had his phone number. He did not share it with his mother, who found it on her own, tracking down Williams’s home in the neighborhood and speaking to him by phone several times, the fourth time in a conversation recorded by police.
Williams didn’t deny having sex with the boy, neither to his mother nor to police, but said it was consensual, never forced.
He now faces three charges: raping a person 16 or younger, unlawful sex with a minor, and not disclosing his HIV status to a sexual partner–first, second and third-degree felonies. If convicted on the first charge, the rest are moot: he could face life in prison. Williams is essentially conceding the unlawful sex charge, and knows he will face some prison time regardless. But he is battling the first charge.
In her opening argument to the jury this morning, Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark traced the events of that night step by step, to the extent that they’re known according to the boy’s “fuzzy” memory–a memory that showed its fuzziness to a considerable extent while the boy was on the stand today, answering questions by Assistant Public Defender Regina Nunnally.
“This case is about one word, and that word is: scapegoat,” Nunnally told the jury in her opening argument. “This is not a case about unconsensual sex activity, this is a case about a scapegoat. Mr. Williams is the scapegoat.” The boy’s parents, Nunnally said, quoting the boy’s words, were “treating him shitty,” there was tension in the house, the boy didn’t want his interactions with Williams known, but to get out from under his parents’ anger, he made Williams his scapegoat.
“The issue here is obviously consent, and the issue here is obviously whether [the boy] was impaired or unconscious or not responsive during these sex acts,” Nunnally said. The prosecution is contending he was impaired or unconscious. The defense is contending that’s not possible: he had not drunk enough, smoked enough pot or taken enough Xanax to lose consciousness. (The defense’s main witness, other than Williams, is a pharmacologist who will testify to the science of impairment.)
The boy was on the stand for over three hours, not counting lunch. When he took the stand and the prosecutor said good morning, he said good morning back, waving briefly with his right hand. He never lost his poise, though his repeated use of “I don’t understand the question” could at times be interpreted as a manner of stalling, the questions being for the most part clear and straight-forward (he did not limit the phrase to the defense). He only occasionally darted glances at Williams, who followed the testimony without showing emotions or betraying any thoughts with body language, though he often looked downward.
But in the end neither the prosecution nor the defense seemed to have scored an irrefutable blow with his testimony, leaving the reconstruction of the night largely to the memory of the boy’s account and the jury’s conclusions. With Williams set to take the stand later this week, the case could come down to the jury’s gauging of the words of one against the other, but with certain irrefutable facts looming large against Williams: he was more than two and a half times the boy’s age, he unquestionably drugged him–whether maliciously or not is irrelevant–and he unquestionably raped him, since no minor can consent to sex with an adult under Florida law.
The question remains whether the act was willful or brutal and abusive of the child’s impairment–whether it was outright rape or statutory rape. Clark, the prosecutor, at no point attempted to characterize Williams in lurid or even mildly negative terms. She barely referred to him, focusing instead on the boy’s accounts. But to the extent that the boy described the way the night unfolded, there is little for Williams left to do in his defense other than to say that the boy is lying. Some circumstantial evidence may be on his side, but little else other than his word.
And what hard evidence is available for the prosecution–Williams’s DNA in the boy’s underwear, the alcohol and drugs found in the boy’s blood test, the boy’s passed out condition when his step-father found him that morning, then when his mother found him (which contradicts whatever a pharmacologist may say), and again, his age–doesn’t help Williams’s word. The boy certainly had not forced himself on him, though there’s also little question that the boy was seeking older men: unless one lies, Grindr is a dating app for adults. It isn’t generally used by people who want to discuss politics or need help with homework, but for sex. Williams, who could not have mistaken the boy for an adult, had picked him up at an intersection near his home. Williams then continued to replicate a situation entirely in Williams’s, not the boy’s, control, at Williams’s home, with Williams’s alcohol and narcotics, until the next day.
Speaking to a Child Protection Team witness in mid-afternoon, the prosecution showed the jury several pictures that showed what the nurse on the stand, who’d examined the boy 24 hours after the encounter with Williams, described as “superficial abrasions” on the boy’s right knee, his shoulder and his pinkie. The images were the first evidence of some form of violence associated with the encounter.
But the pictures–and the testimony–did not establish a causal link between the injuries and the encounter with Williams. The CPT nurse told Nunnally that the boy’s exam of his anus for signs of trauma “was within normal limits.” But she told the prosecutor that that’s the case in 99 percent of incidents involving anal penetration of youths: the area is not prone to injury, and heals rapidly when injured. “It would be more unusual for me to have a finding when I do my exam,” the nurse said.
The unusually long jury selection process stretched to Tuesday morning. Circuit Judge Terence Perkins takes a particularly long time getting a sense of each potential juror. There were numerous questions about jurors’ backgrounds and what they’d heard of the case. Several of them had previous issues with sexual abuse (One woman said she’d been gang-raped when she was 15 and had never reported it because “it was 1956, that was not a good thing for a lady to take to court.”)
A half dozen reported reading of the case in news articles. The lawyers for both sides had a lot of ground to cover with the jurors–their past issues with the law, with sexual abuse, their beliefs about homosexuality, about HIV, about drinking, about adults having sex with minors.
“It’s difficult to hear that kind of stuff. I don’t like it. What can I say? I’m trying to be honest,” one man said. The prosecutor told him “liking it” wasn’t asked of him. The question was merely whether he would be capable to sit on a jury, impartially. “It can be a little difficult for me, but I would do it, it’s my duty,” he said. (He was not picked.)
A few potential jurors spoke of homosexuality with the sort of dismissiveness that speaks of contempt: “I don’t care, don’t want to know,” one said. But for the most part, they answered with “no issues,” and at least four spoke of direct experience with losing friends or family members to AIDS.