By Tyler Cox
Eighty-one. That is roughly the number of feet from one basket to another on a standard basketball court. It is slightly more than the circumference of a basketball, in centimeters (75.88). It is the number of points NBA star Kobe Bryant scored in his career-best game against the Toronto Raptors.
Eighty-one. That is also the number of days former basketball star and 24-year old Chicagoan, Darrell Williams, served in jail for a sexual assault that he did not commit.
Born in Chicago and raised in the notorious Robert Taylor Homes on the city’s South Side, Darrell Williams grew up viewing basketball as a way out of the projects and the violence and gang-life that often comes with living there. Though grades and injury kept him from playing until his junior year, Williams was soon the star of the basketball team at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy in Bronzeville, earning All-City and All-State honors in his junior and senior seasons. After graduation in 2008, Darrell spent his first two years of college playing basketball at junior colleges in Florida and Texas. By the end of his sophomore season, Williams was averaging double figures in both points and rebounds, and was considered to be one of the best junior college players in the country. Traditional Division 1 basketball powerhouses Arizona and Gonzaga, among others, took notice. It was Oklahoma State, located in the small town of Stillwater, that won Williams’ heart, and he transferred there before his junior season.
While at Oklahoma State, William’s gained a reputation among his coaches and the national media as a rebounding specialist, averaging more than seven a game, to go along with his seven points-per-game average. However, it was also at Oklahoma State that Williams would soon find himself helplessly caught up in accusations of sexual assault.
At an off-campus party on December 12, 2010, two white female Oklahoma State students claimed to be groped, attacked, and violently fondled by a male wearing the basketball team’s warmups and matching the general physical description of Williams. In fact, the pair were so confident that it was Williams that they sent a letter to his coach, demanding that he be punished. While Williams was at the party, there were no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence of any such attacks. However, the case soon found its way to the Payne County District Attorney’s Office, who charged Williams with one count of sexual battery and four counts of rape by instrumentation.
Before trial, the district attorney offered Williams a deal that would essentially get him off the hook scott-free. If he plead guilty to misdemeanor battery, he would avoid jail and the sex offender registry, and would be able to continue playing basketball at his dream school. The problem was that Williams refused to confess to a crime he did not commit.
In July of 2012, the trial commenced, and essentially turned on the word of the three parties involved. The jury was made up of 11 White individuals, and one Asian individual. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that Payne County is 84% White, and less than 4% African American. What was surprising was the verdict handed down by these jurors. Despite the lack of any eyewitnesses or physical evidence, Darrell Williams was convicted of three felony counts of sexual battery and rape by instrumentation.
Williams would serve 81 days in jail before sentencing, where the judge refused to sentence him to any additional jail time. However, Williams would have to register as a sex offender every year for the rest of his life. With this burden came the additional trouble many former convicts, whether innocent or not, face when reentering society. While there were several small colleges that seemed to be willing to admit the former basketball star turned convicted felon, none followed through on that willingness. When he couldn’t find a school to accept him, Williams set his sights on the workforce. As is all-too-common with people in Williams’ shoes, many employers were turned off by the sight of the checked felony box on his applications. Fortunately for Williams, this seemingly endless series of unfortunate events wouldn’t last for much longer.
In April of this year, after finding out that multiple jurors had violated the standard admonition not to investigate the case on their own by going to the scene of the alleged crime during the trial, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the Williams’ conviction. Two months later, the Payne County District Attorney made the decision not to retry the case. Darrell Williams was finally a free man in every sense of the word.
This season, Williams is once again a star on the basketball court, though it is no longer in Stillwater or at any of the NCAA’s Division 1 schools. Instead, Williams is remaking a name for himself at Division 2 Texas A&M University – Commerce. In nine games with the Lions. Williams is averaging 16.3 points per game and 12.3 rebounds per game. He has earned “Player of the Week” honors in his conference in three of the four weeks of the season. Perhaps most importantly, Williams is finally getting recognition for his dedication to the game that he loves, rather than the crime he did not commit.
For an interview with Williams and an in-depth look at the circumstances surrounding his case and aftermath, read Bryan Smith’s article in Chicago Magazine. Available at: http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/September-2014/Darrell-Williams/
To follow the progress of Williams during his senior season at Texas A&M – Commerce, see the team’s website: http://lionathletics.com/index.aspx?path=mbball
You can also follow Darrell on Twitter: @D_Will_25