HONOLULU – A former soldier convicted of killing his 5-year-old daughter will spend the rest of his life behind bars after a federal jury announced Friday it failed to agree on his sentence in the first death penalty trial in Hawaii since it became a state.
Jurors deliberated for about seven days before telling the judge they were deadlocked on Naeem Williams’ sentence.
That means U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright will give Williams life in prison without the possibility of release – a fact jurors were aware of while deliberating. Seabright will impose the sentence at a later hearing.
Williams sat at the defense table wearing a light blue, long-sleeved dress shirt and black slacks, and showed no reaction when the jury’s decision was read. Court staff, reporters and other observers packed the courtroom.
Williams’ attorney, John Philipsborn, said his client was expecting the death penalty.
“Both of us were relieved,” he said. “I think he was very grateful for the outcome”
Philipsborn added Williams is “mystified” by his own actions of killing his daughter.
After the hearing, two prosecutors – Assistant U.S. Attorney Darren Ching, who handled the case, and U.S. Attorney for Hawaii Florence Nakakuni – hugged outside the courtroom. Ching got a kiss from his wife.
“We’re relieved the trial is done,” Nakakuni said, adding it was a long trial and the jury worked hard.
“We put forth the best case we had, and we respect the verdict,” said Steve Mellin, another prosecutor. “They obviously were diligent and methodical in going through the evidence in this case.”
The jury in April convicted Williams of murder in his daughter Talia’s 2005 beating death. The same jurors then determined he was eligible for a death sentence, finding the killing was particularly heinous and that Williams acted with intent.
Hawaii’s territorial government abolished capital punishment in 1957. But Talia was killed on military property, so Williams was tried in the federal system, which allows the death penalty.
Talia’s mother, Tarshia Williams, told the Associated Press by phone she was glad her daughter got justice.
“Even though they’re deadlocked, I still feel that I’ve got some kind of closure that the trial is finally over, because I had to wait nine long years, and that was hard,” she said.
She said she believes the government could have done more to help her daughter since military police had shown up at the house for various domestic incidents.
Williams has a lawsuit pending against the U.S. government in the case, which was put on hold for the duration of the criminal trial. The government has denied that officials failed to protect Talia from the abuse that caused her death.
“I’m so saddened and hurt by everything that happened to her,” Tarshia Williams added. “It’s going to be a long, hard journey of healing, and I’ll never forget what happened to her, and she will always live in my heart, no matter what.”
Williams’ defense team argued factors such as his two other children, his low IQ, and physical abuse he suffered from his stepfather were reasons to spare his life. The prosecution said the killing was heinous enough to warrant the death penalty because of circumstances including Talia’s age and vulnerability.
Williams and Talia’s stepmother, Delilah Williams, testified during the guilt phase of the trial that they beat the girl almost daily with belts and their hands during the seven months she lived with them in Hawaii.
During proceedings leading up to the sentencing deliberations, Williams’ family, including his 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, testified that they love him and that his life has value. Williams read a statement to jurors apologizing for killing Talia and asking them to let him live.
Naeem Williams said the beatings were discipline for the child’s bowel- and bladder-control issues. He also blamed them on his frustrations with his marriage.
His wife testified against him as part of a deal with prosecutors for a 20-year sentence. Delilah Williams provided graphic and disturbing details of abuse that included withholding food for days at a time and beating the child while she was duct-taped to a bed. Naeem Williams’ sentence paves the way for Delilah Williams to be sentenced.
The couple eventually took the kindergartner out of school so others wouldn’t see the signs of abuse on her body.
Prosecutors say Talia died July 16, 2005, after her father dealt a blow so hard it left knuckle imprints on her chest. Naeem Williams said he beat the girl that day partly because of toothpaste she spit on the bathroom sink.
The Bureau of Prisons will determine where Naeem Williams serves his life sentence, based on factors including his security level and medical needs. His attorneys could ask the judge to make recommendations on preferred locations.
Hawaii’s last recorded execution was in 1944. Seven of 59 inmates on federal death row are from states that didn’t have the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Cathy Bussewitz of the Associated Press contributed to this report.