Tea-leaf reading by TV lawyers aside, any trial attorney worth her fee will tell you that once a court case wraps up, it's virtually anyone's guess what will happen in the soundproof confines of the jury room. There were a couple of pretty big clues, however, that the jury cloistered on the 16th floor of the Hennepin County courthouse last week was going to acquit Dennis Williams of charges that he terrorized city workers.
For starters, three jurors began crying while listening to Williams's attorney, Bill Kennedy, give his closing argument. The only thing his client was guilty of, Kennedy had told the panel, was seeking treatment for the depression spawned by more than five years of thwarted attempts to hire on as a laborer with the city of Minneapolis and the Park Board. In October Williams told doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Fort Snelling that he was scared because he'd found himself thinking about hurting city officials. Doctors at the VA warned the people Williams had named; six days later, Williams was arrested and charged with eight felony counts of making terroristic threats ("Rage Against the Machine," February 10).
"What should he have done?" Kennedy said near the end of the nearly two-week trial. "Should he not have gone to the hospital? Should he have been less than candid and truthful? I can tell you what he should have done differently--keep his mouth shut. Now go there." The jurors apparently agreed. After returning a not-guilty verdict, several of them approached Williams and Kennedy and said their main concern was that Williams get appropriate treatment for his depression.
Within an hour of his acquittal, Williams returned to the jail, packed the button-down shirts he had worn during his trial, and without so much as a bus ticket stepped out into a nondescript hallway underneath City Hall in downtown Minneapolis. After more than six months in jail, his release occurred so quickly that only Kennedy was there to greet him. The two bought sandwiches from a nearby lunch counter before setting off in Kennedy's sport utility vehicle--a makeshift mobile office piled high with case files--for Williams's home in Brooklyn Park.
It was an anticlimactic end to a two-week trial in which teary-eyed jurors provided only one of many dramatic moments. In an attempt to explain how a 40-year-old black disabled veteran found himself consumed by rage against government workers, Williams's defense retraced five years of twists and turns worthy of a bureaucratic soap opera.
According to trial testimony and city documents, Minneapolis hiring officials made nearly a dozen serious errors that repeatedly kept Williams from being considered for the jobs he sought. After trying to resolve the problems for more than three years, in 1996 Williams filed a complaint with the city's Affirmative Action Management Division, a subsection of the Human Resources department. The following year, the division concluded that Williams had probably been discriminated against and "needed to be made whole."
After an investigator from an outside law firm also found the city potentially liable for discriminating against Williams, officials negotiated a settlement to a federal lawsuit he had filed. In addition to paying him $52,000, the city agreed to give Williams the job he'd been seeking.
But within weeks of signing the settlement, Williams began to suspect the city was attempting to renege on the deal: He got one letter asking if he'd rather work as a garbage collector, and another saying that employee benefits weren't part of his settlement. Depressed, he says he "just collapsed." After several years of sobriety, he started drinking again, and in the spring of '98--before having a chance to start his new job--he sought chemical-dependency treatment at the VA hospital in St. Cloud. He was released last summer, only to discover that the city was firing him for failing to report for work.
In October, when his attempts at fighting that decision failed, Williams drove to the VA hospital at Fort Snelling, where he told mental-health workers that he needed help because he'd had thoughts of "messing up" city workers and an attorney involved in his case. After he acknowledged owning a (legally registered) rifle, hospital staffers concluded that they needed to warn the city. A doctor called the city's director of Human Resources, Ann Eilbracht, who agreed to call seven other people Williams had named. Eilbracht has refused to discuss the case with City Pagesand did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
In their testimony at Williams's trial, the VA mental-health workers gave conflicting opinions as to how dangerous Williams might have been. The first psychiatrist he saw, Kathleen Cody, noted only that he'd said he was "frightened by his own thoughts"; his caseworker, John Moore, said he felt Williams was "honest." Psychiatrist Michael Robertson, however, referred to Williams as "wild-eyed" and said he kept repeating himself--a feature of Williams's speech impediment. A third doctor called in to evaluate Williams's potential for violence characterized the decision to warn city officials as a case of "better safe than sorry."
Williams's caregivers were more forthcoming in their testimony than the city workers called to testify about his attempts to land a job. Eilbracht and several other past and present Minneapolis employees refused to testify until the judge ordered them to.