Jury starts deliberations in Walgreens fire trial

Donald Ray Williams charged with arson in 2007 blaze

A 12-person jury received final instructions from U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel shortly before 2 p.m. Wednesday in San Jose and began their deliberations in the trial of Donald Ray Williams, the East Palo Alto man charged with setting the fire that destroyed the Walgreens building in downtown Palo Alto in 2007.

After eight days of prosecution testimony, only one witness -- a Palo Alto firefighter -- was called by the defense to attempt to show that the fire may have started on the roof of the building and not in second-floor offices above Walgreens and the Subway sandwich shop on University Avenue.

The fire, discovered about 9:30 p.m. July 1, burned through the night and left the building so structurally unsound it had to be demolished.

In closing arguments before the jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Fry told the jury that three eyewitnesses had seen Williams on the roof of the building prior to the fire. Victor Spence, who lives in the alley behind the building, testified that he called Williams "Spider-Man" because he saw Williams climb a narrow pipe to the roof of the building "eight or 10 times."

Fry said the prosecution also established that DNA evidence found on a T-shirt in a dumpster behind the building after the fire was conclusively linked to Williams.

Video from a nearby security camera situated in the alley also showed a man climbing to the roof of the building the night of the fire and walking around on the roof, then going inside a second-floor, unlocked door twice shortly before the fire started.

"You know for sure that is Donald Ray Williams," Fry told the jury. "You see him enter the building twice."

Fry also noted that, just after the fire, Williams lied to a federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agent and a Palo Alto police detective by saying he had never been in the alley behind the building and never had been on the roof.

Noting that the defense would argue that someone other than Williams was present that night and started the fire, Fry said that would make Williams "the unluckiest trespasser."

Noting that the defense had mentioned that Williams has mental health problems but chose not to present an insanity defense, Fry admonished the jury. "Resist the urge to feel sympathy or pity for the defendant," he said. "Base your decision on the evidence."

But the evidence, countered defense attorney Lara Vinnard, is exactly what the prosecution failed to establish.

Vinnard argued that arson was not conclusively proven, although Fry contended it was. Vinnard said the prosecution had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Williams had started the fire and had not proven that Williams was on the roof of the building the night of the fire.

"Even if Mr. Williams is the person in the video, there is no evidence he started the fire," Vinnard told the jury.

"What you see is overreaching by the government, trying to match the evidence to their theory" of what happened, she said.

If convicted of the federal arson charge, Williams faces up to 20 years in prison.

The jurors were given instructions by Judge Fogel to only deliberate when all 12 are in the jury room at the same time and to only consider the evidence, as they see it, in coming to their decision, which must be unanimous either for guilt or innocence.

Williams, dressed in a dark suit and buttoned-up light-colored shirt with no tie, intently wrote on a notepad for almost three hours during the closing arguments.


Like this comment
Posted by Webster&Forest
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 29, 2009 at 12:43 pm

"Williams [...] intently wrote on a notepad for almost three hours during the closing arguments" Possibly it looked something like this:

All work no play makes Donald a dull boy All work no play makes Donald a dull boy All work no play makes Donald a dull boy All work no play makes Donald a dull boy All work no play makes Donald a dull boy ...

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