Menace No More
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 Pages and 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.
One of those witnesses was Larry Blackwell, who served as the city's affirmative-action director until his firing a year ago. (Blackwell's supporters say he was removed because of his zealous pursuit of discrimination cases like Williams's; his critics, including Eilbracht, have said he was let go for missing meetings and accumulating a large case backlog.) On the stand, Blackwell described years of informal attempts to fix what the city admitted were erroneous entries in Williams's file.
He told the court he first contacted Eilbracht about the issue in 1995, when Williams asked him to find out why she wouldn't take his calls or answer his letters. "She said, 'Is that the Dennis Williams I know?'" he testified. "I described him and she said, 'That's the Dennis Williams I know and I don't want to meet with him.'" In earlier hearings on his case, Williams said he and Eilbracht had met in the early '90s when she worked for the Robbinsdale School District and he was among a group of parents who protested the district's firing of its lone African-American principal.
After nearly a week of testimony, Kennedy asked Judge Oleisky to dismiss the case instead of sending it to the jury. Even if everything alleged by the state were true, he argued, Williams's statements to his doctors still did not constitute a crime. Minnesota law specifies that to be considered criminal, threats must have been uttered with "an intent to terrorize others," or the knowledge that they could have that effect. Williams was attempting to resolve his feelings before he got to the point of threatening anyone, Kennedy argued, and thus should not be punished.
For a moment, it appeared as if the trial might end there. After Kennedy presented his motion to acquit, Oleisky turned to prosecutor Charles Salter. "He's got a good point," the judge averred. "What do you say to that?" Salter responded that his main reason for pursuing the case was Williams's reaction when psychiatrists told him that the targets of his anger would have to be warned. "That might be a good idea," Williams recalls retorting. "They think this a game." According to Salter, "But for that statement we would not have had a chargeable case."
In the end, Oleisky ruled that the jury should decide whether Williams had "recklessly" disregarded the possibility that city officials might be frightened by a warning from his doctors. And it was Kennedy's closing argument on that point that moved several jurors to tears: "Dennis told the doctors his thoughts truthfully, honestly, completely, because he trusted their judgment in treating him," the white-haired attorney declared. "The government wants you to believe that Dennis being truthful with his doctors is a crime."
When the jury announced its verdict on April 21 after about six hours of deliberation, Williams burst into tears. In an unusual move for a criminal defendant, he had taken the stand on his own behalf and had been worried that the jurors would lose patience with the speech impediment that sometimes made his testimony halting. He thanked the panel. "I was so grateful they listened to my point of view," he says.
The jury's verdict apparently didn't impress the city's Civil Service Commission. In December the commission heard testimony about Williams's dismissal from the job he never had a chance to start. Earlier this month, the matter finally made its way onto the panel's agenda. Having heard "no oral arguments from the employee"--who was busy attending his own trial--the commission upheld Human Resources' decision to fire Dennis Williams. The final vote came the day after he was acquitted in court.
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