01/31/12 — Is Marvin Williams competent for death penalty?

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Is Marvin Williams competent for death penalty?

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 31, 2012 1:52 PM

A Goldsboro man who has spent the past two decades on death row will find out Thursday morning if his attorneys have been successful in convincing a judge that he is mentally retarded and should not be executed for the 1989 beating death of a co-worker during an attempted robbery.

Attorneys for Marvin Earl Williams, 50, during a Monday morning hearing before Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones II, detailed testimony and affidavits by Williams' family, friends, former teachers and mental health experts that they said support the claim.

They portrayed Williams as "slow," being easily led by others and as someone who did not understand the consequences of his actions since childhood.

District Attorney Branny Vickory and the family of the slain man, Theron Price, painted a different picture of Williams as man who might not be a "rocket scientist," but who was still able to plan and carry out the attempted robbery at Dewey Brothers that resulted in the death of Price, a security guard at the plant.

Price's nephew, Jerry Price of Lynchburg, Va., offered up photos of his uncle in uniform, in group photos and a copy of the funeral program.

Williams' mother, brother and sisters were in the courtroom, but did not address the court. During one break, his mother and brother stood behind Williams and spoke quietly with him.

Before beginning his comments, Price said he recognized that Williams' mother was in the courtroom and that he respected her as a mother, but that he would be making some harsh statements about her son.

Williams had a choice the night of the crime, Price said.

"His choice was to rob and murder," he said. "My uncle was a 60-year-old unarmed man who enjoyed NASCAR and feeding the stray cats at Dewey Brothers where he worked. Marvin Williams was in his 20s and armed with a knife. He could have chose to run. He could have chosen to tie my uncle up. He choose to beat my uncle to death with a time clock and welding mask.

"Marvin Williams' only concern that night was the money he came to steal, not being caught to the extent of murder and covering his track. He did not try to help or call for help for my uncle. He let him lay there and die. Marvin Williams is not mentally retarded your honor. Marvin Williams is a cold-hearted killer and deserves the punishment that many national and state officials like you and those in this courtroom have set forth and prescribed."

Another nephew, Howard Berger of Annapolis Md., recalled childhood memories of his uncle. He spoke of his uncle's enlistment at age 17 to serve during World War II and then the Korean War.

It is hard to believe that 23 years after the crime that the family is still going through the turmoil, Berger said.

Williams filed for the reprieve under a 2001 state law that prohibits anyone who is mentally retarded from being sentenced to death. Today marks the 10th anniversary of the filing.

The state law sets three benchmarks that must be met: The person must prove a significant deficit of general intelligence; a significant limitation in adaptive functioning at the time of the crime; and that those issues manifested themselves before the person was 18 years old.

Even without the law, which sets the procedures for the hearing, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a mentally retarded offender cannot be sentenced to death.

Williams also has filed under the state's Racial Justice Act. That filing was not part of Monday's hearing.

If Jones rules against Williams, he will remain on death row. If Jones rules in Williams' favor, a resentencing hearing will be required.

That does not mean Williams would be eligible for release because of a 30-year robbery sentence that is running concurrently with the murder sentence.

Defense attorneys Shelby Benton and Glenn Barfield argued that Williams met all of the criteria and had an IQ of between 69 and 71 based on testing and data as far back as Williams' first year in school.

That is reinforced by more recent testing by licensed psychologists and psychiatrists, they said.

Vickory said the question was more than an issue of numbers attempting to quantify someone's intelligence.

"The reality is that you have tests, you have tests that are all over the board -- as low as 60 to the upper 70s," Vickory said.

Mrs. Albertson and Barfield said there were questions about some test results because they were administered by non-certified professionals. In others, the higher test scores could be attributed to the "practice effect" in which scores improve when the same test is taken multiple times.

Williams' IQ at the time of the crime is unknown, but the state does concede that he had at least two areas of significant limitations in adaptive functioning -- work and education, Vickory said.

Mrs. Albertson noted that both the state and defense agreed on those two limitations. Other experts have said that Williams has significant limitations in six of the 10 adaptive functions the state recognizes.

Vickory responded that the law speaks to a person's IQ at the time of the crime, but that it also considers the present. However, William has declined to take the new "gold standard" IQ test, Vickory said.

It is important to look at Williams' action on the night of the crime, Vickory said.

From those actions, it is clear that Williams knew employees were paid in cash and that the money was kept in a safe, Vickory said. Williams knew where the safe was and knew to get a welding torch, gloves and helmet, he said.

Vickory said Williams later told a friend about the crime and that he first thought he had only knocked Price out. At some point, Williams realized Price was dead, but "kept his eyes on the prize (money)," Vickory said.

Williams was unable to get into the safe, but kept working on it when Price's replacement came on duty because he knew the new guard did not have Price's key to the locked area where the safe was, Vickory said.

It was only after two cars arrived that Williams wiped his fingerprints and slipped away, Vickory said.

Price said that the good intentions of the 2001 law "have been and are being exploited."

"There has never been any doubt that he murdered my uncle," Price said. "To date, he has shown no remorse whatsoever. I believe everyone in this courtroom and anyone beyond the doors of this courtroom knows without a doubt that Marvin Williams is not mentally retarded.

"Let's not confuse mental retardation with cold-hearted meanness and a total disregard for human life."