Nearly two years after his conviction for burning down the Walgreens building on University Avenue, Donald Ray Williams was finally committed to a federal psychiatric facility, a federal prosecutor said on Friday (Dec. 9).
Williams, 48, of East Palo Alto, was convicted of arson by a jury in Jan. 29, 2009, of setting the July 1, 2007, fire that destroyed the 1903 structure at the corner of Bryant Street and University Avenue, but his sentencing had been put off innumerable times because of his psychiatric condition, according to court documents.
Williams has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and had not taking his medications to control the disease. He was tried in federal court because the Walgreens building was used in interstate commerce, relating to goods from other states.
A T-shirt recovered from a nearby Dumpster by a federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent had Williams' DNA on it, according to investigators.
Williams' attorney, Susan Steiger Dondershine, on Feb. 4, 2010, asked U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel to throw out the jury verdict, maintaining that Williams was incompetent during the 2008-2009 trial and never received a psychiatric evaluation despite a 20-year history of severe mental illness.
Dondershine argued that Fogel should have ordered a psychiatric evaluation based on Williams' outbursts in the courtroom during trial.
Throughout his trial, Williams was continually observed by Santa Clara County jail staff and medical and psychiatric professionals, who described him as having auditory hallucinations in addition to rambling, being agitated, not making sense, being delusional and having disorganized thoughts, among other displays, she said.
"There is a shocking disconnect between what was going on in court and what was going on in Mr. Williams' head," Dondershine wrote to the court.
Fogel in 2010 admitted that Williams had outbursts during court and was obviously mentally ill. But "lots of people have mental illness but are not incompetent," he said.
Dondershine tried but failed to get the conviction overturned prior to sentencing. Fogel said in a report by a defense psychiatric expert, Dr. Arturo Silva, was compelling enough to open an inquiry into Williams' mental incompetence during the trial but maintained that procedurally the time for such inquiry would come after sentencing and not before.
Silva's report offered enough statistical data and evidence to potentially convince the court that based on Williams' history during previous criminal proceedings he was probably mentally incompetent during the arson trial, Fogel said.
Williams could be placed in a federal prison to serve out his 20-year sentence if in the future he is no longer mentally ill, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Fry said.
Since Dondershine raised questions in February 2010 regarding his competence, Williams has received treatment by psychiatrists in a federal correctional facility in Los Angeles. Court documents stated his county jail cell was in such disarray that a biohazard team was sent in because of its condition.
In May Fogel signed an order committing Williams and said that in lieu of being sentenced to prison he would be committed to a federal medical facility for care or treatment.
Fry said Williams was sent to a federal hospital prison in Missouri. He would remain there until the director no longer finds him to be mentally ill.
His attorney could file a motion for a new trial, but the government would argue it is time-barred, he said.
Williams previously had been found incompetent in several state cases and was committed to mental hospitals, his former federal public defender, Manuel Araujo, wrote at the time of his trial. But Araujo said in a memo he did not pursue a mental evaluation of Williams because he feared Williams might say something that could harm his case.
Araujo filed but later withdrew a request for a mental-competency hearing, saying he believed his client to be competent after treatment.