(Editor’s note: we recommend you listen to the story.)
In March 2001, Fred Williams left his friend Tanya Davis’ house to get groceries. He was 17 and living on the west side of Detroit. Fred says he weighed two options before he left.
“I had Hometown Groceries on Joy Road and Wyoming,” Fred recalls, “or I had Foodarama on Livernois and Julian.”
Fred chose Foodarama because he could buy spaghetti ingredients and make a drug sale at the same time. He’d been selling drugs for about three years – mostly as a “corner boy” selling for someone else.
Fred made a drug sale, went into the store and got the ingredients for spaghetti.
“I’m at the counter, being served by the clerk, ... and that’s when I get tackled by these detectives,” says Fred.
The next thing he knows, Fred is at the police station being interrogated. They’re saying he murdered a 40-year-old woman named Donna Haughton.
On January 17th, 2001, firefighters pulled Donna Haughton from a burning house on Joy Road in Detroit. She was already dead – but not from the fire. She had been shot twice: once in the back, once in the head.
Her roommate, Yolanda Trotter, told police that before she’d jumped out of her bedroom window to escape, she’d seen two men with a gun and a gas can. She heard the gunshots as she ran away from the house.
Fred was held at the police station for more than a day and a half. He kept insisting he didn’t kill Donna Haughton and didn’t know anything about it, but he was put in a lineup and picked out by the roommate.
Then a homicide detective wrote a confession while Fred dictated.
“He’s writing it,” Fred says. “At that time, I’m illiterate. ... I couldn’t even write a statement at that time if I wanted to.”
The confession said Fred went to Donna’s house alone to collect $350 she owed him. She told him she didn’t have the money.
An excerpt of Fred’s confession from trial transcripts:
Donna came to the door and let me in. I came in and me and Donna started talkin’ about the money she owed me. I thought she was going to pay me but she started saying that she was not paying me now. So I told her if she was not going to pay me then I was going to burn the house down so nobody would live there. So I started sprinkling gas around, Donna then came at me with a knife. I had a gun in my coat pocket, right pocket, I pulled it out and shot her. I shot her twice and she fell. I started walking around the house pacing the floor, not knowing what to do. So I set the couch on fired and ran out the door.
Question: What did the other guy do that was with you?
Answer: he was there the night before. But when I went to the house the next time by myself.
Fred is now 34. He says nothing in that confession is true. He says he did go to Donna Haughton’s house a few weeks before with a friend to drop off money, but that was it. He says, he confessed – saying he was defending himself – because he thought it was his best chance at a shorter prison sentence.
While Fred was waiting for his trial in jail, he called his mom. He told her he had $4,000 in savings hidden in her house, and he needed her to take the money and get him a lawyer.
“Before I told her where it was at,” Fred says, “I asked her, ‘vow to me, promise me ... that you’re going to take this money and do the right thing with it. There’s no time to play around. They’re charging me with murder. First-degree murder. They’re talking about giving me life.’”
Fred says his mom promised him that she would take the money and get him a lawyer.
“And I told her where it was at,” Fred says,” and she went and retrieved it, and she proceeded to spend it all getting high. She spent it all paying some of the drug debts that she had and purchasing more drugs to get high.”
That’s how Fred’s sister Crystal Williams remembers it, too.
More than a year after Fred was arrested, he went to trial with a court-appointed attorney. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and arson and given a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. It was mandatory under state law.
Fred’s last act in the free world was a trip to the Foodarama to buy ingredients for spaghetti. He’s been in prison ever since.
Cruel and unusual punishment
Fred is now incarcerated at Marquette Branch Prison in the Upper Peninsula. And after years of being told he would die in prison, Fred now has reason to hope.
Five years ago, in 2012, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling said giving juveniles who commit murder a mandatory life sentence is cruel and unusual punishment. A few years later, in 2016, the court said the 2012 ruling applied retroactively, and Michigan – and 27 other states with similar laws – had to give these juvenile lifers a shot at a second chance. Michigan has the second largest juvenile lifer population in the country with 367. After the court mandate, Michigan has begun resentencing its juvenile lifer population.
Under the new rules, Fred could get a minimum sentence of 27 years and be released after eleven more years, or he could get life without parole again.
The court will look at many factors when deciding how long Fred’s punishment should be. One factor they’ll consider is his upbringing, acknowledgement that juvenile lifers like Fred can be a product of an environment they didn’t choose.
Fred says his life got pretty serious when he was around six years old, and his parents got addicted to crack cocaine. His family house became a drug house. He says his parents would cover the entrance to the kitchen while they smoked drugs and cooked drugs in there.
“We were supposed to be good little kids and sit there and watch cartoons,” Fred says.
But he says he and his older sister and little brother would sneak over to the kitchen and peek in while the adults were working.
“It was a learning experience,” Fred says. “Whether people realize it or not, you’re learning as a kid. Whether you’re learning to read, whether you’re learning to play basketball or softball or cook crack and sell crack, you’re learning. And so that’s what my learning experience was: drugs and violence.”
When Fred was eight or nine, his dad got pneumonia, but he still had to go out into a blizzard to sell drugs. One day, he came into the house to warm up.
“He sat on his little recliner,” says Fred, “and he put his feet up, and he never woke up from there.”
The next time Fred saw his dad was at his funeral.
Joining the family trade
By age 14, Fred had taken the night shift on the corner, selling drugs for the same guy his dad had worked for before he died.
“I sold crack. I sold heroin. I sold marijuana. I robbed people. I broke in houses. I stole cars and sold parts from cars,” Fred says. “Yeah, I was involved in the underworld pretty heavy.”
When Fred was sent to prison for life, he didn’t leave the underworld. In 2009 – eight years into his incarceration – he stabbed another prisoner in the face with a makeshift knife during a fight and was sent to segregation for months. There, he took time to reflect.
“And I’m like, ‘man, I have to make a change,’” says Fred. “I need to grow up.”
He found out he could get books delivered from the library to segregation. One of the first books he requested was “The Norton Reader.”
“‘The Norton Reader’ encompassed instructions on how to conduct yourself as a man and how not to,” Fred says.
This was the beginning of Fred’s evolution: rehabilitation – another important factor Michigan courts will consider during Fred’s resentencing hearing.
Fred has earned his G.E.D. He’s taken college and self-help classes. He gives talks over the phone to university classes on the outside. He paints and makes bracelets. And he’s facilitated poetry and reading groups. He says working with those groups in particular has helped give meaning to his life.
Still these accomplishments are not enough. At least that’s what Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy says. She’s asking the court to still keep Fred in prison for life. She’s basically saying Fred is irredeemable – or in legalese “irreparably corrupt.” Her office declined an interview on the case.
This recommendation does not determine the outcome, but it hurts Fred’s chance of getting out.
The risk of maintaining innocence
For 16 years, Fred has maintained his innocence.
“When I say I’m innocent,” Fred clarifies, “I mean that not only did I not murder the person that I’m in prison for, but I wasn’t even there the day that the person was murdered.”
Fred’s attorney Valerie Newman says there is a tension between maintaining innocence and trying to achieve freedom.
“Because maintaining his innocence is at odds with what the courts and the prosecutor wants,” she says, “which is acceptance of responsibility as a sign of rehabilitation and growth and maturity.”
Newman works for the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office and has practiced law for more than 25 years.
Fred would likely do better at his resentencing hearing if he accepted responsibility for the crime. Newman says this leaves Fred with a tortured choice to make. He can say he killed Donna Haughton, show remorse and hope for a reduced prison sentence. Or he can maintain his innocence and risk staying in prison for life. This is a strategic decision most juvenile lifers do not face because they’ve admitted their guilt.
Fred says he talks about his case with people in prison, and everyone advises him to “swallow the pill” and “take the juvenile lifer route,” saying he committed the crime, and he’s sorry.
“We’re seeing juvenile lifers go home,” Fred says. “We may point someone out who’s in a wheelchair who’s been in here for 50 years filing appeals, trying to wait on an appeal, and it’s kind of like, ‘do you want to be the guy who’s going home? Or do you want to be the guy who’s here in the wheelchair 50 years later still saying that he’s innocent?’”
But Fred doesn’t think he can do it.
“I don’t want to get up there and take responsibility for it because it means a lot to me, man,” he says. “To murder a woman over $350. To be a part of murdering someone and setting them on fire. It’s not – like I’ve done some things. I’m not a choir boy. I’m not an angel or anything, but that’s not who I am. That’s not me and I shouldn’t have to say that I did it just to get out of prison.”
A case with flaws
There are two main pieces of evidence against Fred. There’s his confession of guilt, and there’s the eyewitness identification by the roommate, Yolanda Trotter. In both cases, there are questions about how valid the evidence is.
For one, Trotter says when the cops called her to come see Fred’s lineup, they told her they had the guy.
“If the police suggest to the witness that they’ve caught the guy,” says Eve Primus, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, “it puts pressure on the witness to pick that person or to pick a person out of whatever lineup or identification procedure the police show the individual. ... So it absolutely is a problematic procedure to employ.”
A Detroit Police Department spokesman declined comment for this story, but in trial transcripts, the police officer denies telling Trotter the main suspect was in the lineup.
Another problem is, Yolanda Trotter picked someone else out of the lineup first. Then she equivocated and picked Fred. She says that’s because she was nervous.
I spoke to Trotter on the phone this summer, and she said Fred was the guy. She was “98.9 percent sure.”
“Fred is guilty as sin,” Trotter said. “He’s saying what he’s saying. I’m saying what I know.”
After that conversation, Trotter stopped responding to calls.
Then there’s Fred’s confession. The facts in it don’t quite match up with Trotter’s testimony or crime scene evidence. On top of that, Fred claims the confession was made up.
“It’s actually much more plausible than people realize,” says Primus. “In the studies of exonerations based on D.N.A. evidence, in the first 250 exonerations, 40 of those individuals had falsely confessed.”
Primus said that was according to data in the book “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong.” The National Registry of Exonerations points to similar data.
An innocence case
Fred’s juvenile resentencing hearing is not yet scheduled. Best case scenario, he’d serve eleven more years in prison. But he’d still be a convicted felon.
“I’ll take it,” Fred says. “I’m not going to be foolish, but it’s not what I want. It’s not how I want to come home. I want to be vindicated.”
There is a chance Fred could be vindicated. He has one other legal option. In addition to the juvenile resentencing, his lawyer can open a separate innocence case. To do that, she’ll have to present new, compelling evidence. This summer his attorney Valerie Newman says she found something; she thinks they’ve solved the crime, but she still needs more details for a strong innocence case.
Prison is not a place to be
Fred’s childhood friend Chontel told him once that even though he’s in prison, he’s doing better than most of the men from their neighborhood.
“It’s hard to imagine what I would have become, had I not came to prison,” Fred says.” It’s hard to imagine the situation I would be in, whether I would even be alive.”
Fred says his friends on the outside have not been successful.
“And I don’t even mean material success,” he says. “I just mean like a peaceful state, a safety zone.”
Fred says everyone he knew from the neighborhood is either dead or in prison, hiding from police or running from police.
“It makes me want to say, ‘yes,’ that I was better off coming to prison,” Fred says. “But I hate prison so strongly. I have such a strong disdain for prison. I just can’t allow myself to say it.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said the minimum sentence Fred Williams could get as a juvenile lifer is 25 years, setting him up for release in nine years. Due to a weapons charge, which can not be served concurrently with his murder charge, the minimum time he could serve is actually 27 years, making his earliest possible release date as a juvenile lifer eleven years away.