Monday, October 17, 2011
This posting is part of a series that provides a follow-up to my book, NOTORIOUS HIV: THE MEDIA SPECTACLE OF NUSHAWN WILLIAMS. Previous postings have examined other current aspects of the case.
A recent court case in Buffalo involving a young man, who engaged in sexual conduct with a number of young women, provides an interesting, and troubling, contrast to the Nushawn Williams case, as it raises important questions of equity and justice.
Darryl Fortner was accused of having unprotected sex with five young women, one of whom was fifteen years old. Fortner pled guilty to five reckless endangerment misdemeanor charges, for which he received five one-year consecutive sentences. In jail since April, Fortner is expected to be released in December, at which point he will have spent a total of nine months in prison.
Nushawn Williams was also charged with reckless endangerment. Additionally, he was charged with statutory rape (having sex with a woman under the age of 18) and possession of cocaine. Williams, however, was offered a plea deal of four to twelve years in prison (and threatened with 75 years), and he has now spent more than thirteen years behind bars.
Williams was cast as an AIDS monster, a sexual predator, and was the object of a media hysteria. Public officials and journalists labeled him a mass murderer, declared his guilt before trial, and, in some cases, called for his torture and execution.
What explains the differential of treatment here? Court officials said that the reluctance of the young women to come forward, in Fortner’s case, made it difficult to convict on charges of “depraved indifference to human life." But one did come forward, and only two came forward in the Williams case.
Moreover, while Williams and Fortner were charged with the same crime, reckless endangerment, in Fortner’s case there were five counts, rather than two for Williams. In Williams' case, however, they were felony charges. In Fortner’s case, prosecutors chose not to pursue a statutory rape charge.
Williams is still in prison awaiting disposition on his appeal against the state’s attempt to have him confined indefinitely under the state’s sexual predator statute. The state has decided not to pursue such a strategy against Fortner.
In Fortner’s attorney's words, “Given the circumstances, I think we made out okay.”
It’s hard to know the what role race may have played in this case. Both Fortner and Williams are African-American, but in Williams’ case, the young women involved were white. We don’t know the racial characteristics of Fortner’s partners, which may, in itself, be a significant fact.
Interestingly, The Buffalo News carried an article noting the differences in sentencing between Fortner and some other recent cases involving criminal HIV transmission. But it made no mention of the Williams case. Two of the cases that it mentioned involved aggravated sexual assault, and not consensual sex. (All of Williams’ relations were consensual).
This was the same newspaper that carried an editorial, during the Williams spectacle, suggesting that punishment be initiated "involving devices not used since the Middle Ages.”
My purpose here is certainly not to suggest that Daryl Fortner ought to spend more time in prison. Quite the contrary, the sentence does seem altogether reasonable under the circumstances. But obviously something has changed. For one thing, HIV is no longer treated with the same kind of hysteria than it was in the late 90s, when Nuhsawn Williams pled guilty to his crimes.
In fact, in this case, the state’s medical expert noted that a positive HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. In fact, it hasn’t been for many years.
Isn’t it time for the state to end its relentless persecution of Nushawn Williams and let him out of jail once and for all?
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Thomas Shevory, Ithaca College
I spent part of Tuesday morning last week in the Erie County Courthouse in Buffalo, New York. I was there to attend a hearing for Nushawn Williams. I wasn’t sure which courtroom it was in and was told to check with the Prosecutor’s Office. The receptionist there told me that they weren’t handling the case.
“That’s federal, I think,” she said. But I knew that wasn’t true, and said so. Someone else, apparently an attorney, was standing there, and she asked him, “Do you know who’s handling the Nushawn Williams case”? “No,” he said. A woman standing next to him asked, “Who’s that?” “He’s the AIDS guy,” the attorney responded. The receptionist made a phone call, talked for a bit, and then told me, “We’re both wrong. It’s being handled by the Attorney General’s Office, but you’re in the right building.” She then directed me to the appropriate courtroom.
Television cameras there were awaiting Nushawn’s arrival, but there were three cases on the docket before his. Finally, they brought him in, shackled. The camera operators were at the ready. Daniel P. Grasso, Nushawn’s attorney, asked Judge John Michalski to reconsider his denial of a previous motion dismissing the state’s current case against Nushawn. The state’s attorney responded briefly. The judge quickly upheld his previous denial. And that was that.
Except that Nushawn intervened to request a change of counsel. His attorney, he complained, hadn’t visited him before the hearing, and he hadn’t even been sure what it was about. The judged denied his request practically before it was out of his mouth.
I waited for a bit and then left, walking back through the corridor and past the scrum of news people by the elevator. I recognized one of them. She half-smiled. She had interviewed me a while back for one of the Buffalo television stations. I didn’t smile back. I felt the story was unfairly edited to further demonize him.
Nushawn Williams, infamous for supposedly spreading HIV around Chautauqua County, New York, in 1997, has served his entire twelve year sentence. But he is still in prison, and the state is trying to have him kept behind bars as a dangerous sex offender under its civil confinement statute. The legislation was pushed hard by Governor Elliot Spitzer, who eventually resigned when it was revealed that he had spent thousands of dollars on prostitutes while Attorney General and Governor.
I know Nushawn Williams quite well. In 2005, I published Notorious HIV, about his case. Writing the book, I interviewed him many times, and we became friends. Last year, I was in Mongolia and out of contact. When I left, I expected, upon my return, to greet him as a free man. But, while abroad, a learned about the state’s decision to try to keep him confined. I visited him a couple of weeks ago at the Wende Correctional Facility to reestablish contact. When I learned about the hearing, I decided to attend.
And now I want to devote some of this blog to his case.