Judge to consider new evidence in Walgreen's arson case | February 5, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 5, 2010

Judge to consider new evidence in Walgreen's arson case

Guilty verdict could be overturned if Donald Williams found mentally incompetent

by Sue Dremann

New evidence about the possible mental incompetence of convicted Walgreen's arsonist Donald Ray Williams leaves open the possibility of overturning his conviction, U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel said Thursday morning in San Jose.

During a scrappy and often contentious hearing with Williams' defense attorney Susan Steiger Dondershine, Fogel granted a defense request for a hearing to overturn Williams' conviction based on Constitutional grounds. But the hearing will not take place prior to his sentencing on May 13 for the 2007 fire the destroyed the building on University Avenue in Palo Alto.

Dondershine had asked the judge to throw out the Jan. 29, 2009, jury verdict for which Williams faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Dondershine maintained that Williams was incompetent during the 2008-2009 trial and never received a psychiatric evaluation despite a 20-year history of severe mental illness.

In court papers filed in December, Dondershine also attacked the competency of Williams' former federal public defender, Manuel Araujo. She supplied papers she said indicate Araujo knew his client to be mentally unable to understand or assist in his own defense but which Araujo did not present to the court.

Williams previously had been found incompetent in several state cases and was committed to mental hospitals, Araujo wrote.

But Araujo said he did not pursue a mental evaluation of Williams because he feared Williams might say something that could harm his case, he said.

Araujo filed but later withdrew a request for a mental competency hearing, saying he believed his client to be competent after treatment. Dondershine argued that Fogel should have ordered a psychiatric evaluation based on Williams' outbursts in the courtroom during trial.

Dondershine argued Thursday that because of Araujo's own memos and a psychiatrist's report stating Williams was probably incompetent during the arson trial, Fogel now had a duty to overturn the verdict prior to sentencing.

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.

Fogel admitted that Williams had outbursts during court and that he was obviously mentally ill. But "lots of people have mental illness but are not incompetent," he said.

During trial, the court relied in part on years of working with Araujo, during which the judge found him trustworthy in his dealings, Fogel said. The judge also based his belief that Williams was competent during the trial based on the defendant's own actions, he said.

He did find a report by a defense psychiatric expert, Dr. Arturo Silva, 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.

Fogel said Thursday he wants to hear prosecution arguments and Araujo's explanation for why he omitted information to the court and made the decisions he made.

Williams has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.


Posted by HAHA, a resident of Greater Miranda
on Feb 5, 2010 at 3:21 am


Posted by Tim Buck II, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 5, 2010 at 9:35 am


The arsonist certainly was one smart dude. The fire baffled firefighters all night. Question is: Could Williams possibly be that smart dude, or is the real smart dude LOL out there?

Posted by CC, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 5, 2010 at 11:58 am

Good point. I too believe that the "dude" is still out there.

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