His dream survives even now, even after everything that has happened, even after all the indignities he has endured. In the dream, he rises in his graduation gown, cloaked in the black and orange of the school he loves. An announcer intones the names, his voice reverberating in a packed auditorium. One after another, the graduates clutch the dean’s hand and grasp their diplomas. On this day, Darrell Williams is just another student, a little taller than most, but just another face in a sea of thousands. He moves the tassel from one side of his mortarboard to the other. And he smiles his big smile. The nightmare is over. His honor is restored. He is free.
It is true he is no longer a felon, no longer a convicted sex offender. No longer is he required to register with police anywhere he calls home. No longer is he restricted from hanging out in a public park. No longer is he forced to take a test to measure his chances for recidivism—that is, for again committing the kind of sexual assault he has insisted from day one he never committed in the first place.
That two-year ordeal ended when the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Williams’s conviction in April and the district attorney there announced in June that he would not retry the case. But there is no giddiness, no exulting now. Just a 24-year-old man trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered life.
He was once a top basketball prospect—a standout at Chicago’s Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, then a star forward for Oklahoma State University. But that was before he was charged with sexually assaulting two female students at an off-campus party in late 2010.
Even after he was convicted, there were schools that had promised to take a chance on him, to let him play his final year of college basketball for them, only to snatch away their offers at the last minute. He had a similar experience with potential employers. Everyone loved him—until they saw the felony box checked on the application, the rape conviction.
Him. Darrell (pronounced duh-RELL) Williams, who clawed his way out of the Chicago projects without so much as a parking ticket. Who overcame the cold-blooded killing of the person, besides his mother, dearest to him: his older brother, Derrick.
Williams, who won over almost everyone he met with his kindness. Who not only passed two lie detector tests before he was charged but inspired the polygraph expert to tell his assistant coach, “Sir, I don’t know what happened, but this kid didn’t do it.”
Williams, who turned down a plea deal that would have let him off the hook in virtually every way—let him return to school at Oklahoma State, let him resume his basketball career literally the next day—because he couldn’t bear to say he did something he did not do.
Everyone begged him to take that deal: his mother, his coaches, his lawyers. They all believed he was innocent, but they also knew where he, a young black man, was being tried: in Stillwater, Oklahoma—a largely white, deeply conservative town—before a white judge and a jury without a single black person on it, with two white women as accusers. Please take the deal, they begged. Please. He didn’t.
Long before college stardom or the ugly accusations, Darrell Williams’s biggest concern was surviving a childhood in the Robert Taylor Homes in Bronzeville. One of Chicago’s roughest housing projects before the last of the arson-scarred concrete and brick high-rises fell to a wrecking ball in 2007, the “vertical ghetto,” as it was known, teemed with drugs and violence. Hardly a month went by without a funeral for someone Williams knew—a friend, a classmate, a cousin, a distant relative—as gangs and drug dealers battled for control of the buildings.
Times were hard for the family. Darrell and Derrick and their younger brother, Pierre, their younger sister, Alicia, and their mother, Alice, all crowded into a two-bedroom apartment. Alice Williams held two jobs to support her kids. She worked at a liquor store at 51st and Prairie and as a security guard for the CTA. Darrell’s father, who never married Alice or lived with the family, was in and out of their lives. He would show up, Darrell says, and “then for about two years we wouldn’t see him.”
Instead, the boy looked up to the brother who was three years older than him. Derrick was everything Darrell wanted to be. Good at sports. Tough, but not a thug. And he was determined not to let Darrell get pulled into the life that beckoned young black men in their neighborhood every day. “It was always him and Rell,” says Darrell’s aunt, Mildred Williams, calling her nephew by the pet name the family uses. Says Darrell: “I kind of just tried to follow in his footsteps.”
Though basketball would become all-consuming, a collarbone broken in football and poor grades kept Darrell from playing for his high school team at Dunbar until his junior year. “I wanted to play basketball so bad, so I knew what I had to do,” he says. “I went to summer school and took night classes to get eligible.”
From the start, his talent was obvious. In his first tournament, during the 2006–7 season, he had a monster game, scoring 27 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. When he returned to school, he was shocked at the reaction. “Some students were telling me, ‘You’re ranked!’ ”—as in ranked among the state’s top players. The next year, as a senior, he led Dunbar to a 19–7 record—the school’s best in years—including a 10–0 mark in its Chicago Public League conference.
Though his play drew interest from big universities, his grades and test scores left him ineligible for a Division I program right away. So, in 2008, he enrolled at tiny Chipola College in Marianna, Florida. Even there, coaches from Arizona, Tennessee, Gonzaga, and other top basketball schools took notice of the 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward. But it was an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, Steven Middleton, who made it his mission to land Williams.
“He was a nimble guy for his size,” says Middleton, who left the Oklahoma State staff in April of this year. “He had good feet, good hands. He was strong as an ox. He was quick, could dribble, and he just had a knack for rebounding.” Court skills weren’t all that sold him on Williams. “The first thing I noticed was his smile. His smile just lights up a room. He was a Chicago kid, and I’m a city guy myself. I just started to develop a relationship with him. Over the phone and talking with him. Talking with his people back in Chicago. There was nothing phony about him. He comes from hard beginnings—he has some toughness to him—but he got along with everybody.”
Williams visited other schools, but he fell in love with Oklahoma State. For a boy from 51st and Federal, the campus in Stillwater, with its stately Georgian architecture, seemed like Oz. Though he still had another year to go before he could transfer to a Division I program, Williams committed to Oklahoma State before his sophomore season. He also made a vow to his brother Derrick: “You’re going to come to all my games. You’re going to be with me through this whole journey.”
One month later, though, in September 2009, Williams got a phone call that changed all that. Derrick, who had moved to Milwaukee in August with his girlfriend to escape the violence of Chicago and to find work, had been shot. It had happened while he was back in Chicago visiting his grandmother. He was walking to a barbecue when a gunman sprayed the street with bullets, hitting him twice in the head.
Darrell rushed home to be by his brother’s side. “I talked to him, held his hand,” he recalls. “I was trying to stay positive, but it was hard when I saw all these tubes and they were saying he’s not breathing on his own.”
Darrell was in the room when his brother died. Derrick was 22. “He never even saw me play,” Darrell says, over and over. The murder remains unsolved, though the family believes Derrick was not the intended target.
After that, basketball became Williams’s salvation. “At our first game, I just prayed: ‘Brother, this is for you. I’m doing this whole season for you.’ ” Williams had transferred for his sophomore year to Midland College in Texas, and his play there cemented his status as one of the country’s best junior college players. He averaged a double-double (double figures in points and rebounds) for the season and led his team to a 30–3 record.
He arrived at Stillwater the next year as a junior, and he continued to thrive, even on the much bigger stage. He started in seven of the Cowboys’ first 10 games and was a terror on the boards—tied for first on the team in rebounds, at nearly nine a game during that stint. “He was undoubtedly the leader of this basketball team,” Middleton says. “That season was his year. He was going to be the guy, no doubt about it.”
In the classroom he struggled, but he was working hard and making progress. “He took advantage of everything we offered,” says Marilyn Middlebrook, the school’s associate athletics director for academic affairs. “He would sit for hours, studying. He just blossomed.”
The biggest news, though, was in his personal life. A woman he had been dating back home was pregnant with his baby, a girl. The relationship was rocky, but the idea of having a child thrilled him. And if things worked out the way he hoped—and the way they appeared to be headed—he might have a career in professional basketball and be able to provide for his daughter the kind of life he and his siblings had never dreamed of growing up.
Nothing, it seemed, could slow him. Until that night in early December at a party outside the safe cocoon of campus.
This much is not in dispute: at around 2 a.m. on December 12, 2010, two female Oklahoma State students went to a party also attended by Williams and several of his teammates. It was Dead Week at school—the period before final exams, which students spend studying but also letting off steam.
The house, rented by students and situated three blocks from Stillwater’s police station, was a rundown ranch with a flimsy three-foot-high picket fence. The weather was cold—somewhere in the 20s. The night was pitch-black. People milled around outside and in. On the main floor, black lights cast a fuzzy purple haze. Music thumped.
The real party was in the basement—a small room illuminated by a couple of lamps and Christmas lights strung on low rafters. The music wasn’t as loud there, but the room was far more crowded—some 20 people drinking and talking.
Beyond the setting, there’s little agreement about that night. One thing is certain: A letter arrived days later at the office of Oklahoma State’s head basketball coach, Travis Ford, who shared its contents with Middleton.
To Middleton, who had grown close to his budding star and had come to know him as polite and gentle—a family friend calls him “very respectful, an old-fashioned young man who holds open doors for women”—the actions alleged in the letter seemed entirely out of character for Williams.
Two women claimed he had attacked and violently fondled them at the party. They demanded that he be punished.
Middleton called Williams, screaming. “He was like, ‘Darrell, what did you do?’ ” Williams recalls. “I said, ‘Coach, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ” Says Middleton: “He didn’t know the girls, didn’t know who was accusing him. It became very obvious that he didn’t know anything.”
Though Middleton and Ford believed Williams, the matter was out of their hands. The women had also sent a copy of the letter to the school president, the campus newspaper, and the city and university police.
Stillwater detectives, who took charge of the investigation, asked to interview Williams. He arrived at the station on December 16 without a lawyer, confident he could clear things up. “I was probably misidentified,” Williams told the detectives. But the police weren’t buying it. Recalls Williams: “There were, like, eight officers, and I asked every one of them if they thought I did it. Every one said yes. I said, ‘Well, I didn’t.’ ”
Williams’s confidence that he would be believed grew after he passed two polygraphs—one for each of the accusers. “I’m thinking, Finally, I’ve cleared my name. It’s over with,” he recalls.
It wasn’t. On February 7, 2011, Williams was charged with one count of sexual battery and four counts of what in Oklahoma is known as rape by instrumentation (the women said he put his hands down their pants and penetrated them). That was the same day that Williams’s daughter, Zarriell, was born. The confluence of events left him with sharply conflicted emotions: “I didn’t know whether to be happy or angry. I didn’t know what to feel.”
When he arrived at the Payne County Courthouse that day to hear the charges read, a mob of reporters descended, shouting questions as he shouldered past them and into a packed courtroom. “It was like a movie,” Williams recalls. “There were cameras everywhere.” In a show of support, several of his teammates sat behind him. Afterward, he left through a back door, free on $5,000 bond but deeply shaken.
While the case made its way through administrative stages, Williams holed up in his dorm room, obsessing over the sudden, terrible turn his life had taken. “I was just thinking, How could something like this happen? How am I going to get charged for something that I’m telling them that I straight up did not do?” His mother saw the same irony. “To get him to Oklahoma State, then to have these charges,” she told the Sun-Times as the case unfolded. “It wasn’t right; to survive all the troubles and violence in Chicago; to get where he is. It hurts.”
Though he continued to back Williams, Ford had no option but to suspend him from the team once he was charged. Williams could feel his dream of playing basketball slipping away. “I had used basketball to get me through everything,” he says. “Through my ups and downs. When they took that from me, they took my life.”
The case split the campus. A group from Wings of Hope Family Crisis Services held a prayer vigil in support of the accusers. But a large and vocal contingent, including some administrators and faculty, stood firmly behind Williams. “Free Darrell” T-shirts and wristbands stamped “25,” his jersey number, sprouted up.
His staunch supporters included Middlebrook, the associate athletics director, who testified as a character witness, and Amy Randolph, a learning specialist tasked with improving athletes’ academic performance. “He was just a delightful, pleasant, polite, gentle young man who was so respectful, especially around women,” says Randolph. “I have three children and two teenage daughters, and I never for one moment worried when they were around him.”
The prosecutor’s office offered a deal: If Williams would plead guilty to misdemeanor battery and apologize to the women, there would be no jail time or sex offender registry and he could resume playing basketball. His two lawyers, hired by Williams’s mother at a discounted fee, recommended he take it.
Middleton agreed. “I told him, ‘D, we ain’t never going to get no better than this,’ ” he says. “I cussed at him for over an hour. ‘You’ve got to take this.’ ” Even though he believed Williams was innocent, Middleton reminded him that “this is Stillwater.”
Williams refused. “I can’t plead guilty to something I didn’t do,” he said. He told his mom, “We fightin’.”
The case against Williams turned on the accounts of his two accusers: architecture students Lisa and Heather, both 20 at the time of the incident and friends. (These are not their real names.) At the trial, Lisa testified that a tall, light-skinned young black man wearing Oklahoma State basketball warmups—she would later identify him in court as Williams—first molested her as she descended the narrow staircase to the basement of the house, fondling her breasts and stomach and thrusting a hand down her jeans. When she told the man to stop, he did, she said.
Having discovered moments later that her driver’s license and $10 were missing from her back pocket, Lisa walked up to the same man, she testified, and demanded to know if he had taken them. The man said he hadn’t but that he would help her look. When the two went outside to search, Lisa said, the man grabbed her again. This time, she claimed, he thrust his hands down her pants and put a finger inside her.
The second woman, Heather, testified that Williams first approached her on the basement stairs and tried to kiss her. Later, she said, she was sitting on a ledge in the basement when some basketball players came up to her. Several started “putting their hands all over my body,” she said. One of the men—Williams, she claimed—jammed his hands down the front of her jeans, putting his fingers inside her.
According to her testimony, she fled outside, but that man followed her. He held her hands over her head and stepped on her feet, she claimed, then pinned her against the picket fence and put his free hand down her pants, penetrating her. He then dragged her across the yard, pushed her up against a truck, and assaulted her again. When another partygoer interrupted to ask the man about the basketball game earlier that night, Heather seized the opportunity to run away.
By most every account, the women’s testimonies were compelling. “I felt scared, angry, confused, violated, lost, dehumanized,” Lisa said in court.
The defense, in turn, focused on poking holes in the women’s stories. For starters, Emily Sadler, a nursing student at Oklahoma State who had invited Williams to the party, testified that he was in her eyesight in the basement nearly the entire time he was there and that she never saw him do anything inappropriate.
The defense also attacked the issue of timing. Given the women’s accounts, they argued, Williams would have virtually had to be in two places at once. “In 19 minutes, Mr. Williams is in the basement, out of the basement, assaulting one girl, kissing a girl, putting his feet on the foot, and they’re running away,” one of his lawyers, Cheryl Ramsey, said in her closing arguments.
Other than a friend of the accusers, Ramsey pointed out, there were no eyewitnesses. In a packed party, no one else said they saw Williams attack the women. None of the women’s clothes were torn or stretched. There were no bruises on their wrists. No scratches. There was no physical evidence. No DNA.
But the jury never heard two key pieces of information that may have helped Williams’s case. During her testimony, Lisa identified Williams as the man who helped her search for her ID after assaulting her. But another Oklahoma State player—one with a similar build and complexion and who had been wearing the same team warmups that Williams wore—had sworn in an affidavit that he, not Williams, had helped Lisa in the search. The defense team desperately wanted that player, Jarred Shaw, to testify, but he did not. Because he had transferred out of state to a school in Utah, he was not legally obliged to respond to their subpoena. (Attempts by Chicago to reach him were unsuccessful.)
The second piece of information was uncovered after the trial by the Chicago Innocence Project, a nonprofit that investigates possible wrongful convictions, and an investigator hired by Williams’s subsequent appellate team. Both accusers, according to court filings, suffered from mental health issues. One had been hospitalized three times for anorexia nervosa. She had also been arrested twice for theft, and in one of those instances, she told officers she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The other woman had been treated for a major depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder.
Still, even though the jury did not have this information during deliberations, it seemed unfathomable to Williams and his team that he could be proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He began to worry, though, when the jurors filed back in. Not one of them—11 white people and one person of Asian descent—would look at him as they took their seats.
Williams rose from the defense table. He bowed his head as the verdict was read. Not guilty on two counts. Guilty on three others: felony counts of sexual battery and rape by instrumentation.
“Oh my Jesus God!” Williams cried out, pounding his hands on the table. He turned to the jury. “I didn’t do it.”
Middleton wept “like a baby,” he says. “I’ve never been more destroyed or brokenhearted about anything. I still have nightmares about it. You always want to believe in the justice system. And we did. Until we saw what happened in this case.”
To Williams, the moment felt like “a dream you can’t wake up from. Everything I wanted, the goals I had, basically snatched away.” Tears streamed down his face, but as he was being processed for jail, he knew he had to pull himself together. “I can’t let these people see I’m crying,” he recalls thinking. “It’s a different ball game now. I can’t let them see my weakness.”
He’d never been behind bars before. “The first day, I just slept. I’d wake up, like, every two hours, just hoping it was a dream.” He coped as best he could. Randolph, the learning specialist, helped arrange for Williams to continue his schooling in jail. “I took some exams, I wrote some papers,” he says. Though suspended from playing, he still had his scholarship and was determined not to let his classwork slide.
The days became weeks, and weeks became months as Williams awaited sentencing. The clamor for his case to be evaluated by a higher court grew, pushed largely by the Chicago Innocence Project. Its president, David Protess, who had run a similar organization at Northwestern University that dug up evidence that helped free five death row inmates, wrote a series of articles about the Williams case for The Huffington Post. Also beating the drum were Brooke Brant and Brandi Robertson, two Oklahoma State supporters who, among other things, helped organize a rally by Jesse Jackson in Stillwater.
On October 12, 2012—nearly two years after the party that changed his life—Williams stood again before the same judge, this time for his sentencing. Asked if he had anything to say, Williams, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, declared in a somber but firm voice: “I’m innocent. I didn’t do anything.”
Though the jury had recommended Williams serve one year for each of the three counts, the judge declined to give him more jail time beyond the 81 days he had already served, instead handing him a one-year suspended sentence. On one hand, it was a break. On the other, it was a setback: Before the judgment, the judge denied a motion for a new trial.
Allowed to return to Chicago, Williams faced severe restrictions. His high school assistant coach, Tyrone Bullock, let him stay at his home in the Ashburn neighborhood on the South Side. But Williams now had to go to police headquarters to register as a sex offender, a task he would have to repeat each year for the rest of his life. He had to get a new driver’s license that noted his sex offender status. His name and picture would now appear on the Illinois State Police’s online sex offender registry—in his case, with the designation “sexual predator” in bold red letters. His travel would be limited and monitored during his probation: He would be required to request permission from any state he wanted to visit.
There seemed to be one bright spot: Despite his conviction, a number of small colleges expressed a willingness to take a chance on the young man. In each case, college officials were briefed either by staff of the Chicago Innocence Project or by Charles Harris II, a Chicago lawyer not involved in Williams’s legal case but who wanted to help pro bono. If Williams could get accepted into one of those schools, he could resume playing basketball and get on with his life while his appeal wound its way through the courts.
Thus started a long, cruel game of raised hopes and pulled rugs. It began with Kentucky Wesleyan College. “Everything was good,” recalls Williams. The proper paperwork was submitted, the coach was thrilled. But in December 2013, just before Williams was to leave, he received a phone call: The offer had been yanked.
The pattern repeated again and again, with Fresno Pacific University, Robert Morris University, Roosevelt University. Each time, recalls Protess, “they would extend an offer, only to have it reversed by some administrator higher up.” One offer from a Texas school fell through, in part, because the state invoked its right to refuse to let Williams move there.
“He kept being tantalized by these opportunities,” says Pamela Cytrynbaum, executive director of the Chicago Innocence Project. “And every time you’d see him just kind of emotionally wince.”
Williams was having a rough time in other ways, too. He briefly held a job in construction—which he quit when he thought he was about to enroll at one of the schools—but otherwise remained unemployed. And he had another run-in with the law. In February of this year, he was arrested for urinating in an alley near Bullock’s home. After the arrest, police also charged him with not properly registering as a sex offender. (Williams says he had assumed he did not have to continue to register while his case was in the appeals process.) He spent a month in jail.
But while Williams was struggling in Chicago, there had been a promising development in his sexual assault case. An investigator hired by one of Williams’s new attorneys for the appeal had made a startling discovery. During the trial, more than one jury member had visited the scene of the alleged crime—the house where the party took place. What’s more, one juror had done so at night and had reported to his fellow jurors that, in his opinion, there was enough light to make an identification, a key question in their deliberations.
Jurors are given many instructions during the course of a criminal case, but few are more sacred than the admonition not to investigate a case on their own. Visiting the scene was not just a mistake; it was grounds for a mistrial.
The lawyers now knew they had a real shot at getting Williams’s conviction overturned. Having been burned so many times since the ordeal began, Williams tried to keep his hopes in check. But it was hard. “If this isn’t cleared up,” he recalls thinking, “my life is going to be over.”
Williams was at home on April 22 of this year when he got the call. “Are you sitting down?” his lawyer asked.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals had found that jury misconduct had indeed robbed Williams of a fair trial. With a stroke of the pen, Darrell Williams was, at least at that moment, no longer a sex offender.
Says Williams: “I couldn’t believe it. You just can’t explain the feeling. I was crying, I was yelling.”
There was only one obstacle left. Though his conviction had been overturned, the case was remanded back to Stillwater. It could be tried again, or the charges could be dropped. The decision came eight weeks later, on June 16, with an unapologetic statement released by the office of Tom Lee, the district attorney. The case would not be retried, it said, but that didn’t mean Lee believed in Williams’s innocence. He was dropping charges only because the two “victims of Williams’ criminal acts” did not want to go through the trauma of testifying again. (Lee did not return calls requesting an interview.)
Williams finds this explanation puzzling. “If someone did to me what they were accusing me of doing, I would go to trial as many times as it took.” As for the women themselves, he says, he holds no grudges. “If I did, it would take away from me living my life today. And I have a life to live.”
In an e-mail response to Chicago, one of the accusers explained why she was not eager to see the case retried. “I took my case to trial once. I testified in front of a jury and told my truth, my story. I believe they heard me. And they sought justice for me,” she wrote. “I’ve made much progress to put this ordeal behind me. I do not want to have to go through the experience of another trial again.”
Sun splashes through the enormous garage door entrance to Lacuna Fitness on South Clark Street. It’s a Wednesday morning in July, and the hangar-like facility is nearly empty—except for a lone figure pushing through a series of torturous abdominal exercises and his encouraging trainer. The day is cool, but a sheen of sweat shines on Darrell Williams’s forehead. He shakes his head when his trainer asks for more, but he gives it to him. “He’s definitely got it when it comes to will,” the trainer tells me.
Since the ruling, several schools have contacted Williams, but his eligibility is now severely limited. Under rules for Division I, a five-year clock starts at the beginning of an athlete’s first semester, even if it is at a junior college. The athlete is allowed four seasons total during that time period. Since that clock has now run out on Williams, he no longer qualifies to play at a Division I school, unless he is granted an exception.
As of late July, Williams was planning to play this fall for Texas A&M University–Commerce, a Division II school. Under Division II rules, for smaller schools, Williams would normally have only a single semester of eligibility left—not even a complete season—but Texas A&M–Commerce was granted a waiver by the NCAA to allow him to play there for a full year.
If a Division I school offers him a scholarship—and successfully applies for a waiver from the NCAA to allow him another season of basketball—Williams would seize that opportunity. His dream, he says, is to go back to Oklahoma State, and the school is considering that possibility.
Does he really want to return to the scene of so much anguish, so many bad memories? “Yes,” says Williams flatly. Despite everything, he still loves the place. Throughout his ordeal, he says, the school “steady stood behind me.” He explains that any return would be one of triumph, of vindication, the final brick to tumble in the collapsing wall between him and feeling fully free.
He knows it may not happen. If there’s one thing his experience has taught him, it’s to keep a rein on expectations.
“God has a plan,” Williams says, over lunch at a restaurant near the gym. “There were times I wanted to scream, ‘No, this isn’t right!’ At the end of the day, there’s still long-term damage to my name. But you can’t go back and get those two years back. In this next part of my journey, I just want to stay humble.”
When I ask about his daughter, Zarriell, now three, his face brightens. He admits he hasn’t spent as much time with her as he should. He and her mother aren’t together, and their relationship is not good, he says. Still, he’s determined not to be the absentee parent his own father was.
Lunch is over. His workout is done. He heads into the bright sunlight to his slightly beat-up car and folds his long frame into the front seat. He checks for traffic. The road is clear. He eases out into a street that opens wide before him.