In May 1992, 17-year-old Nanon Williams and Vaal Guevara met with Emmade Rasul and Adonius Collier at Hermann Park in Houston, Texas for a late-night drug deal. Three others, Patrick Smith, Elaine Winn, and Stephanie Anderson waited in their cars. Soon after the young men entered a wooded area of the park, gunfire erupted. Emmade Rasul was shot and survived. Adonius Collier was killed.
Arrest warrants were issued for Guevara and Nanon. After securing a lawyer, Guevara turned himself into the police. Although Guevara was initially charged with capital murder, this charge was later dropped, and he agreed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of 10 years for “illegal investment” in drugs in exchange for his testimony against Nanon.
The prosecution’s theory alleged that Nanon shot Rasul twice, and then shot Collier, first with a .25mm caliber handgun (which he used on Rasul), and then, from close range with a shotgun. The only gun that police were able to recover was Guevara’s .22 Derringer Magnum, found at his apartment. The .25mm caliber handgun and the shotgun were never located.
During trial, the prosecution’s star witness Guevara—who himself was involved in the drug deal and admitted to firing his .22 caliber Derringer at Collier—testified that Nanon shot Collier with both a .25mm caliber handgun and a shotgun.
The State also presented expert testimony from Robert Baldwin, head of the Houston Police Department’s ballistics division. He testified that there was no doubt that the bullet found in Collier’s head was from Nanon’s .25mm caliber handgun—and that it could not have come from Guevara’s .22 Derringer:
Q: Is there any way in the world based on your training, your expertise, and the examinations that you made, that the bullet…was shot out of
A: No sir. It’s the wrong caliber …
But later Baldwin testified: “I do not know what the functional condition of that Derringer is, I have never checked it.”
The moment Baldwin uttered those words Nanon’s attorney should have realized that no comparison testing had been conducted. And that Baldwin’s previous testimony that the bullet could not have come from the Derringer was false. But no objections were raised. And despite the State’s failure to conduct ballistics testing, Nanon’s attorney never requested that independent tests be conducted on Guevara’s gun or on the bullet taken from the victim.
After the conviction, Nanon’s trial attorney admitted in an affidavit:
It was negligence on my part not to attempt to stop the trial at this point, after Mr. Baldwin had given evidence that the bullet could not possibly have come from Vaal Guevara’s Derringer, but then admitted that he never checked the gun. It was definitely not trial strategy to do nothing—I missed the importance of his testimony at the trial.
Equally egregious was the State’s suppression of this exculpatory evidence. The State failed to test the only weapon recovered in a case in which they were seeking the death penalty.
Additionally, ADA Vic Wisner who was prosecutor at Williams’ trial, admitted in a 1999 letter to the Texas Parole Board that state’s witness Guevara was “not at all truthful” in his testimony, and “likely participated in Collier’s murder.”
As a result of the unchallenged false testimony and admittedly poor representation, Nanon was convicted of capital murder.
Later independent testing, at the request of Nanon’s new attorney, revealed that the bullet found in the victim was not a .25mm caliber bullet—as the state’s expert had wrongly testified—but was actually a .22mm caliber bullet fired from Guevara’s gun. This was evidence that the jury never heard.
After learning of this new evidence, one juror stated:
Had I known that the other bullet found in the head of the victim came from the codefendant Vaal Guevara’s .22 Derringer, that information would have raised a reasonable doubt that Nanon Williams was guilty of capital murder. Consequently, I would have acquitted. (Affidavit of Collete Cox, Apr. 14. 1998).
Because of this new evidence several evidentiary hearings were conducted. During these hearings, it became clear that the prosecution’s witness—including the ballistics expert, Robert Baldwin, had given false testimony.
Realizing the weakness in its case, the State turned its focus to the “second shot” theory: it was not the first shot from the Guevara’s .25 Derringer that killed Collier, but the second shot from the shotgun. At the evidentiary hearings the State introduced a new witness—Patrick Smith, a witness that the police had been unable to locate before Nanon’s trial. Smith testified that he saw Nanon standing over Collier, heard Collier say something, and then saw Nanon shoot Collier at close range. The State granted Smith immunity in exchange for his testimony at the hearing.
Nanon has always denied carrying or firing a shotgun. And Nanon’s lawyers presented ample evidence that Smith’s testimony was false: (1) the police officer’s reports showed that Smith could not have observed the shooting from where he was sitting because it was too dark and a row of trees obscured his view; (2) an independent pathologist testified that Collier’s wounds could not have been caused by a shotgun fired at close range; and (3) it was the .22 caliber bullet fired by Guevara that was probably the cause of death.
The only evidence presented at trial that Nanon fired a shotgun came from Guevara—the individual who we now know, through ballistics testing, shot Collier. Elaine Winn, Guevara’s girlfriend, testified at trial that she had seen Nanon hiding the shotgun under a large football jacket, but later admitted that the weather had been too hot to wear such heavy clothes. And Rasul, the other individual that was shot that night, said that he did not see Nanon carrying a shotgun and that Nanon had been wearing jogging trousers and a t-shirt, not a heavy jacket.
After these hearings, in May 2001, Judge Joan Campbell of the 248th District in Harris County wrote, “The Court finds that Vaal Guevara shot [Adonius Collier] in the head with Guevara’s .22 Magnum Davis Derringer.” She recommended that a new trial be granted because Nanon had been denied his right to effective assistance of counsel. Because his attorney had failed to conduct forensic firearms testing, there was a reasonable probability that had the jury been presented with this new evidence the trial would have resulted in a different verdict.
But, in April 2002, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the lower court’s recommendation in a three-paragraph opinion that provided no explanation for its decision.
Nanon’s attorneys then pursued relief in federal court and on March 29, 2005, the federal district court vacated the death sentence because he was a juvenile at the time of the crime, but denied his culpability claims. A fifth circuit panel reversed and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing because no clear findings of fact existed for the federal court to examine. The district court held a hearing and granted relief. The State appealed and a panel, comprised of three new judges, reversed the panel’s previous decision. After Nanon’s attorney requested a rehearing en banc, the panel withdrew its opinion and issued a new opinion denying relief.
In July 2012, Nanon’s attorneys petitioned the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for a Rehearing En Banc—asking the court to find that because there are no clear findings of fact for the federal court to examine, the initial panel correctly ordered the evidentiary hearing. The Petition for Rehearing En Banc was denied. Nanon’s attorney’s appealed it to the United States Supreme court, which denied hearing Nanon’s case on January 7, 2013.
Nanon remains incarcerated in Texas Department of Criminal Justice Ramsey One Unit.
Nanon needs a law firm to represent him pro bono to hopefully secure a new, fair trial.
Nanon Williams, TDCJ # 1306434, Ramsey I Unit, 1100 FM 655, Rosharon, TX 77583
C.J. Connelly, Director, Humane Investigation Project of the Anthony Graves Foundation, firstname.lastname@example.org