The defense team of Justin Daniel and Tiffany Welch pointed to conflicting statements on circumstances of the alleged touching in several law enforcement interviews with the alleged victim, as well as answers to questions when called as the prosecution’s second witness in the Circuit Court trial. They also noted an inability of the child to pin down any timeframe whatsoever to when the alleged indecent touching or sexual abuse occurred. The original warrants and indictments handed down by the grand jury cited a timeframe from February 1, 2020, to July 12, 2020.
The defense theory outlined in its opening statement was that the child’s mother had created the notion of sexual abuse by Williams in the child’s mind in order to gain a legal and financial advantage over Williams in pending civil litigation. During cross-examination of prosecution witness FRPD Investigator Zach King, who was one law enforcement officer to interview the alleged victim, a specific exchange was noted. Asked “why she was there” the girl responded, “to help me and my mom.” To the follow-up question “With what?” she answered, “I don’t remember.”
The defense asserted that the mother’s planting of the idea of inappropriate touching led to the child’s confusion on dates and circumstances in various interviews and testimony, rather than any embarrassment in answering questions about the alleged abuse, which defense counsel and their client contend never occurred. During direct examination Williams said he had discussed a pending hostile civil litigation with the victim’s mother in mid-June 2020, about a month prior to her complaint being filed and the child being picked up by law enforcement while at a relative’s home. That relative testified that when she was informed authorities were on their way to pick the child up from her home on July 12, and why, she had asked the girl if she had ever been abused by Derrick Williams to which she had replied “no”. While Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bell objected to the question and answer as hearsay, it was allowed as a counter to the girl’s testimony she had not discussed the “bad touching” issue with the relative.
“She didn’t want to go. She asked, ‘Why do I have to go’,” the relative added of the last time she saw the child.
Called to the stand late Tuesday morning as the defense’s final witness, Derrick Williams was first asked, “Did you ever touch (the victim) for sexual purposes?” – “No sir, absolutely not,” he responded. However, he also agreed the child was a truthful person who would not intentionally lie. In response to prosecution assertions on the implication of all involved parties’ agreement on the basic honesty of the child, defense counsel noted that the mother had full possession, isolating the child from other emotional support group individuals with a different perspective on the interrelationship of the child’s mother, the accused, and the alleged victim, as of the filing of the indecent liberties and sexual abuse complaints on July 12, 2020. During sometimes emotional testimony Williams’ voice cracked during questioning about the charges and his relationship to the child he was accused of sexually-tinged touching and abuse of.
Defense counsel also focused on Williams work schedule with VDOT, month-plus-long battle in May-June 2020 with a severe case of COVID, and support of his mother during a family crisis in late April 2020 when his father survived a cardiac arrest but dealt with ongoing complications, to illustrate what they asserted was a lack of opportunity to have engaged in the alleged behaviors during the February to July 2020 timeframe asserted in the complaint and indictments.
Following Derrick Williams’ testimony Tuesday morning, Commonwealth’s Attorney Bell called one rebuttal witness, another child present to witness a previous interaction between the accused and alleged victim. Bell explained the purpose of the rebuttal testimony was to counter one statement made by the defendant during his testimony. That young witness testified that they had seen the alleged victim and Derrick Williams alone together in a specifically described circumstance, though not a specifically sexual or abusive one at some point in the “summertime” of 2020. Asked by Bell during his cross-examination, “You have never been alone (in the given circumstance)” with the victim? Derrick Williams responded, “No sir.”
It was noted by defense counsel that the circumstance described by the rebuttal witness did not include any inappropriate contact between Williams and the alleged victim. Rather, as noted above, the prosecution explained the rebuttal testimony as countering the defendant’s testimony about having never been in the described social setting with the alleged victim.
As one of the prosecution’s first witnesses on Monday, the alleged victim’s mother said she became aware of the alleged inappropriate touching of her daughter from a disclosure by the child Bell called as the prosecution’s rebuttal witness. She also testified she first heard about the alleged abuse on July 12, 2020, when the complaint was filed with the magistrate.
“Did you inquire or did they come to you?” Bell asked about how the information was obtained from the other child. “I asked,” was the reply.
The defense team also focused some questioning of witnesses and motions arguments on their contention that the lead investigative agency, the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, had an ongoing conflict of interest due to the alleged victim’s mother’s past employment at the county sheriff’s office. It was established during the defense case that there had been no follow-up interviews with Derrick Williams or other individuals familiar with the social interaction between the accused and the victim, as well as Williams’ social interaction with the victim’s mother.
Defense counsel pointed out that the case had gone through three lead investigators. Jeremy Seabright and Emily Young left the Warren County Sheriff’s Department early in the investigation, after which current lead Laura Nelson-Haas spearheaded the investigation. Only Nelson-Haas was called by the prosecution as a witness. She indicated from her interview her belief the child was telling the truth in trying to describe inappropriate sexual contact with Williams.
Nelson-Haas described her leaving the WCSO for a while in 2015, then returning and being assigned to the regional law enforcement academy for recertification as this case was developing in 2020, she acknowledged previous problems with the investigation. She even termed some of its earlier days as “a trainwreck”. However, despite formerly knowing the victim’s mother “as a bailiff in this building” Sgt. Nelson-Haas denied that interfered with her work on the case.
After the defense rested at 11:17 a.m., Judge Sharp recessed the bench trial to allow the sides to prepare closing arguments. When court readjourned at 11:32 a.m., defense counsel Welch reiterated a motion to strike the Commonwealth’s case of aggravated sexual battery against Derrick Williams due to a lack of substantial evidence. She argued that the allegations of sexual abuse in the warrants and indictments were not corroborated by prosecution witness testimony, particularly from the alleged victim. And at 11:49 a.m. the defense again called for the prosecution’s sexual abuse case against Derrick Williams to be dismissed.
After about 2 minutes of reading material before him at the bench, Judge Sharp began by noting he felt the question before the court fell into two categories. The first related to the vagaries in the prosecution case, particularly the lack of a timeframe for the offenses never being established. He reviewed previously submitted case histories in support of both sides of the argument, particularly the prosecution assertion that in cases of sexual abuse of a minor pinning down the precise time of the offense is not a primary concern in consideration of guilt or innocence. Here the judge moved smoothly toward consideration of “weight of evidence” and “reasonable doubt”.
Following a tracing of the evolution of “reasonable doubt” historically in American law, and noting that the alleged victim was “unable to give any description of actions or time” of the allegations against the defendant, Judge Sharp said, “I can’t get to reasonable doubt in this case.” And as the clock on the courtroom wall struck noon the judge concluded that “I must find” the defendant “not guilty”.
That led to a barely suppressed wave of emotion through one side of Circuit Courtroom B where relatives and friends present in support of Derrick Williams took up many of the seats. Leaving the courthouse later Williams declined comment other than to say he was relieved to finally be out from under the cloud of the allegations made against him and was now ready to move on with his life.
That “cloud” included a second charge of Aggravated Sexual Battery against another child that was dismissed on the second day of a two-day trial in February. That dismissal was due to the late surfacing of email/text message evidence in the file of the original lead investigator Emily Young that was not forwarded to other investigators or the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office before Young left the department. That charge was dismissed on a defense motion following the surfacing of the evidence during the second day of the trial. In an NVD story on that trial, Commonwealth’s Attorney Bell observed that the late-discovered evidence contained elements that would have been helpful to both sides in that case. Perhaps ironically, that first alleged victim was the prosecution’s rebuttal witness in these cases.
Williams’ attorneys told the media following the result of these two cases they felt justice had been done and commended Judge Sharp for his thoughtful appraisal of the circumstances at issue in these cases. “Our reaction is we are very happy for Derrick. We think this was absolutely the correct result. I think the judge got it completely right. That’s why we didn’t have to do closing arguments,” defense counsel Justin Daniel said, adding, “We believe a hundred-and-fifty-percent in Derrick’s innocence. We always have. He’s reacted in exactly the way an innocent person would react from the very beginning of this case. And this case has been pending for almost two years.”
A follow-up story is pending upon acquiring comment from all involved sides, including Commonwealth’s Attorney Bell and lead investigator Nelson-Hass, in addition to additional comment from the defense team.