ARCADIA — Marian Evette Williams will not be sentenced to death.
Williams, 54, was found guilty last week of setting a house fire that resulted in the deaths of three young children — Marcus Clark, 10, and his two brothers Kiani, 8, and Kemaren, 4.
The same jury that found her guilty did not vote unanimously to give her the death penalty Thursday. Instead, she will be in prison for the rest of her life without the possibility of parole.
Williams seemed to offer no visible reaction to reading of the jury’s decision, though the faint sound of suppressed tears could be heard in the courtroom. She did hug an adviser from her legal team after the jury’s decision was announced.
Following the jury’s decision, Assistant State Attorney Karen Fraivillig offered the prosecution’s recommended sentencing for Williams: three lifetime prison sentences, one for each of the three victims, in addition to a total of 75 additional years for the other charges.
Judge Don T. Hall accepted the recommendation of the prosecution and formally set Williams’ sentence as such.
The defense has 30 days to file an appeal for the decision, which they have signaled outside of court that they would pursue.
The prosecution’s closing arguments centered around Williams being responsible for her own actions.
Fraivillig noted that both of the mental health experts called by the defense on Wednesday had different opinions on whether Williams was “substantially impaired” in her ability to determine right from wrong.
Fraivillig noted that Dr. Wade Myers, the defense’s psychiatrist, claimed that there was evidence that Williams suffered from a traumatic brain injury. Dr. Valerie McClain, the psychologist called by the defense, did not make the same claim, despite having access to the same MRI report.
“When (Williams) went in that window, she knew exactly what she was doing,” said Fraivillig.
Defense attorney Kevin Shirley, who led the defense team’s efforts in the penalty phase, reiterated some of the material covered in the guilt phase of the trial. He noted that the medical examiner could not give more a more exact timeline of the boys’ death, nor could forensics determine if the fire was started by a lighter Williams had in her possession the night before the fire.
“Is that the lighter that started the fire?” asked Shirley. “We don’t know that.”
Shirley also pressed the issues of Williams’ personal history. In particular, he chose to focus on Williams’ relationship with her own family to elicit sympathy from the jury.
“Ladies and gentlemen, don’t put Meemaw to death,” said Shirley, using a nickname used in court by one of Williams’ granddaughters.
Williams was also found guilty of attempted murder against Mele and Redding, as well as one count each of arson, burglary, and burglary with assault or battery.
The prosecution laid out five aggravating factors when seeking the death penalty against Williams, which the jury all agreed had been proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” by Florida law:
- Williams had previously been convicted of a felony or used threats of violence against a victim of the felony (previous threats against Mele’s family and previous plea of guilty for an aggravated battery against Clarissa Jones).
- The deaths of the victims occurred during the act of another felony (the arson).
- The manner of death for the victims was “heinous, atrocious, and cruel.”
- The planning of the crime was “cold, calculated, and premeditated.”
- The victims were under the age of 12.
The closing arguments came on the heels of the last witness to be called for the case: Dr. Karim Yamout, a psychology expert for the prosecution.
Yamout interviewed Williams on Wednesday, noting that he was not allowed by statute to interview her on the state’s behalf unless she had been found guilty on the charges.
He acknowledge some of the findings of the defense’s experts, diagnosing Williams with “major depressive disorder.” However, he also testified that there was no evidence that Williams was in the midst of a “major depressive episode” during the fire on March 11, 2017.
For that to be a true episode, Yamout said, Williams would have to have a sustained feeling of depression for roughly two weeks — during which time she would likely not be able to move much, let alone attend a party the night before and ride her bike at night.
He also countered Dr. Myers’ claim of childhood and teenage head injuries causing a traumatic brain injury that could affect Williams’ judgment.
“Most head injuries do not translate into traumatic brain injuries,” Yamout said.