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News ::
14 Aug 2003

By Gloria Rubac
Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the Aug. 21, 2003
issue of Workers World newspaper


By Gloria Rubac

Bright purple helium-filled balloons floated over the cake and ice
cream. A big "Lone Star State" piņata swung from a tall oak tree. A
multinational, multigenerational crowd was gathered in the park outside Houston City Hall on Aug. 2 to celebrate a dear friend's 29th birthday. They sang "Happy Birthday," proposed toasts and enjoyed the day.

The only person missing was the one having the birthday. He was still in a cell behind a solid steel door on Texas's death row.

Activist Njeri Shakur explained: "Nanon Williams was arrested when he
was 17 years old. He hadn't gone to his high school prom yet, didn't get that football scholarship to college yet, and didn't even get his heart broken yet. He has been locked up for 12 years and has had his youth stolen by the racist state of Texas based on the racist, lying,
incompetent Houston Police Department's crime lab ballistics expert,
Robert Baldwin."

Williams and Johnnie Bernal, also just 17 years old when arrested, are
both on death row based on incompetent firearms testing by Baldwin.

The crowd took turns reading paragraphs from a resolution presented this summer to the Houston City Council calling for Aug. 2 to be declared "Free Nanon Williams Day" and demanding his release from death row.

They sang and cut the large cake, whose icing read, "Free Nanon--Jail
the HPD crime lab."

As children and the young at heart beat the red, white and blue piņata, an activist with the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement encouraged them on a loudspeaker:

"This star-shaped piņata represents the Lone Star State of Texas and we need to beat justice out of it. Hit it harder. Hit it until justice is released. Beat the hell out of it! Take that, HPD! Take that, D.A. Johnny Holmes! Hit it again until we get justice."

The goodie bags of candies fell to the ground, the children squealed and the speaker boomed, "Now we are finally getting something good from the Lone Star State! We must now get the justice we deserve from Texas."

As uniformed police and plain-clothes red-squad cops patrolled the
party, celebrants told radio and TV reporters about the Williams case
and how it is connected to an ever-growing scandal around the Houston
police crime lab. The lab was shut down last year after an independent
audit confirmed shoddy police work and a leaking roof that may have
contaminated evidence.


The Houston Chronicle recently editorialized: "The real problem is that the lab has been run by and for the Houston Police Department without effective outside scrutiny. To the management and at least some members of the staff, obtaining criminal convictions seems to have been more important than maintaining the quality or integrity of scientific work.

"The DNA analysts, for example, made little effort to keep up with
developments in their field and apparently were satisfied to use biased, outmoded procedures so long as those procedures produced results that made the police and prosecutors happy. Their work was marked by carelessness and overstatement rather than scientific rigor."

Josiah Sutton, a young African Amer ican from Houston who had been in
prison for four years on a rape conviction, was released this year after re-examination of DNA proved his innocence. Evidence in hundreds and possibly thousands of cases will have to be re-tested.

In Nanon Williams's case, it was not until 1998 that the court, under
pressure from his new legal team, allowed independent firearms' testing to be carried out. The test showed conclusively that a bullet taken from the victim's head was fired by the state's main witness and not by Williams.

The new evidence was so strong that in May 2001 the judge hearing the
case agreed with Nanon's new attorneys and recommended to the Texas
Court of Crim inal Appeals that a new trial be held.

However, in April 2002 the CCA declined to accept the judge's
recommendation and did not order a new trial, despite clear factual
findings presented by the lower court judge.

Johnnie Bernal was also sentenced to death on the basis of Officer
Baldwin's test-firing of a gun, which was alleged to have been in
Bernal's possession. Baldwin fired it 25 times, cleaning the barrel with solvent about halfway through the pro cess. He then claimed that one of the 25 fired rounds, which he could not later identify, matched the bullet taken from the victim.

Numerous ballistics examiners have since decried such testing as not
only lacking a scientific basis but as constituting negligent
destruction of evidence. Bernal currently remains on death row.


Baldwin is still the head of the ballistics division of the HPD crime
lab. When the scandal broke, HPD Chief C.O. Bradford recommended
disciplinary action against Baldwin. The result was a seven-day
suspension. The disciplinary decision was based solely on Baldwin's
failure to complete required inspections of equipment and paperwork.

Since the news broke on the problems with Houston's crime lab, the Nanon Williams Support Association and the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Move ment have held numerous demonstrations, press conferences and public events on this case. His case has been covered on Houston's Pacifica radio station, KPFT.

Many youth from oppressed communities are becoming involved. A group of African American youth from the Black out Arts Collective have done
spoken word pieces at the demonstrations and on KPFT's "Fight Back!"
show. Collective mem ber Brother Equality says of Wil liams's case, "We know what the criminal justice system is doing to our youth. We support freedom for Nanon."

Williams's murder conviction is now being appealed in Federal District
Court in Houston. Attorney Morris Moon told the birthday crowd that
"Many good things are happening in the case that cannot be discussed
yet. By the first of the year, things should start happening," he said. Moon then took his first-ever hit at a piņata, bringing down some candies. "Hope fully next year, Nanon will be here to celebrate with us," he said.

Williams was in his cell when KPFT aired a Free Speech Radio News
broadcast of a five-minute piece on his birthday party, complete with
singing and hits to the piņata. Other men on his wing also heard the
news story and started singing "Happy Birthday" to him through the steel doors of their cages. The melody carried from cell to cell, back to Williams. He told WW that this was "probably the best birthday I have ever had and I wasn't even there. I heard everyone singing 'Happy
Birthday' to me. I heard you and Lucha and Njeri and Joanne. I heard
Luchita hitting the piņata," he said. "Hearing the celebration brought
tears to my eyes."

For more information, see the NAWISA web page at

- END -

(Copyright Workers World Service: Everyone is permitted to copy and
distribute verbatim copies of this document, but changing it is not
allowed. For more information contact Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY,
NY 10011; via e-mail: ww (at) Subscribe wwnews-
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