Baltimore Jury Convicts Williams of First-Degree Murder in Pregnant Wife’s Death

… Defendant faces potential life term at April 29 sentencing …

By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

9:46 PM EST, February 25, 2011

After a two-week trial that traced a failing marriage’s path from disharmony to a vicious killing, a former community activist in Northeast Baltimore was found guilty Friday of first-degree murder in the fatal stabbing of his pregnant wife in 2008.

The jury also convicted Cleaven L. Williams Jr. of a dangerous-weapon charge in the death of Veronica Williams, with whom he had three children. Their relationship, testimony showed, was fast disintegrating in the weeks before she was attacked.

The 35-year-old defendant, who stared ahead without visible expression as he stood for the reading of the verdict, sat back down as the jury was polled and let out a deep sigh. Minutes later, after the jury had been thanked by the judge and excused, Williams turned to a relative sitting behind him and, seeing that she was upset, said firmly, “Do not cry.”

Friends and relatives of the dead woman — some wearing purple, her favorite color — said they were relieved by the verdict, especially given earlier indications that the jury might be having difficulty reaching a decision.

“We can start having some kind of closure,” Sabrena Robinson, a first cousin of Veronica Williams, said outside the courthouse. “We were all raised very close. This was one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to deal with in this family.”

Williams never denied killing his wife, but when he took the stand last week, he said he had no recollection of the stabbing and only realized what he had done when brought to his senses by a police officer firing a gun at him. The jury’s task was to decide whether the killing was a premeditated act — first-degree murder — or the product of a provoked rage, which they could have concluded was manslaughter.

Williams, who faces the possibility of life in prison when he is sentenced April 29, testified that he had suspected his wife of being unfaithful — and admitted to an earlier “indiscretion” of his own — and said they had become embroiled in repeated arguments. After one of the fights became physical, a warrant was issued charging him with second-degree assault, but testimony showed that when he tried to surrender, a police commander who knew Williams declined to take him into custody.

At about the same time, Williams wrote a letter in which he explained his desire to kill his wife and outlined how he wanted their children raised, a missive that prosecutor Kevin Wiggins said demonstrated prior intent. On the stand, the defendant said the letter had been merely a way to “vent.”

On Nov. 17, 2008, a few days after writing the note, and just after his wife had been granted a protective order against him, Williams — a former president of the Greater Greenmount Community Association who was well-known in the neighborhood — was seen approaching his wife outside a North Avenue courthouse, knocking her down and stabbing her repeatedly. A police officer who happened to be nearby put a stop to the attack by shooting him twice.

Another Baltimore man was convicted Friday in a killing that had also been preceded by a woman’s request for protection. Gregory Tooson, 46, who was accused of strangling his girlfriend, Melonie Smith, in April 2009, was found guilty by a jury of second-degree murder. Days before her death, Smith had been granted a temporary protective order against Tooson, who prosecutors said was sending her threatening e-mails. Smith was found dead in her home in the 700 block of Yale Ave. after she had failed to show up for work.

After the Williams verdict, Robinson, the victim’s cousin, said she had been grateful to hear Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory read aloud a note from the jury that expressed compassion for the victim’s family and, in particular, the three children she had with the defendant. The jury said its note was a “testament to the tragedy that unfolded” when Veronica Williams was killed.

“It is with heavy hearts and great pain that we have arrived at our unanimous decision,” the note from the jury said. “We mourn with both families the loss of their loved ones.”

Jurors said they recognized that the lives of the couple’s children — girls ages 8 and 10, and a 9-year-old boy — “have been forever changed,” but expressed the hope that they will one day experience “a sense of normalcy.”

The jury members, who had been deliberating case since Tuesday afternoon, wrote of their hope that Williams “be given the help and support he so desperately needs to pay back the debt he owes,” and that he “find forgiveness in the eyes of his maker.”

The office of State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein issued a statement saying that “while no verdict can return Ms. Williams to her children, family, and friends, our hope is that the verdict will provide some solace and closure to her loved ones.”

Before the verdict was announced, the defendant’s relatives released a statement calling Veronica Williams “an important part of our family for almost 10 years,” and saying they love her and miss her. “If we could change what has happened we definitely would,” the statement went on. “All both families can do now is to be there for the children to ensure they know they have family that truly loves and cares about them. It is, and has been, our family’s prayer that in time Veronica’s family finds forgiveness, as we are so sorry for what has happened.”

Shayna Samero was less forgiving. She had been driving on North Avenue that day, and testified in Williams’ trial that she had seen him approach a woman on the sidewalk and attack her with “pure anger.” Running to the victim’s aid, Samero said she held a shirt to the woman’s neck wounds and, referring to Williams, suggested to a police officer that he “kill the bastard.”

“He’s a bug I’d like to squash,” Samero, 27, said after the verdict. She said she moved from Baltimore after the incident and teaches science in Somerset County.

“My students were concerned for me, but I told them that if we don’t start standing up and saying ‘no,’ these things will continue to happen. We must say it’s not OK. Veronica did not have a voice in this trial as the defense tried to break down her character, but Veronica had a voice today.”

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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