Shortly after Demetrius Williams appeared before a Richmond judge on Friday, he stood with his friends Von Johnson and Kevin Harris outside the John Marshall Courts Building as they all processed what had just happened inside.
The three men have been organizing some big events for kids in the Mosby Court community in recent months, including a backpack drive in September, a Halloween “Trunk or Treat” candy giveaway, a Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving Day and a toy giveaway planned for Christmas Eve.
Johnson and Harris, along with Williams’ many other supporters, had hoped that Williams’ good deeds and mentoring of young people might keep him out of prison or convince the prosecution to lower the sentence in their plea offer.
But on Friday, Williams pleaded guilty to a drug charge and weapon violation and accepted a term of four years and three months in prison. In the courtroom during the hearing, Johnson bent down in his seat with his head in his hands. Two other drug charges against Williams were withdrawn.
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“It’s done,” Williams said later, outside the courthouse doors. He said he’ll do the time and then return to putting on events aimed at giving hope to kids in Mosby Court, a public housing community in Richmond’s East End. Recently, he provided outreach to a young man in Mosby who just lost his job and was thinking of harming himself.
“They’ll hold it down,” Williams said of his supporters, several of whom stood around him after watching his hearing in court. “When I come back, I’ll just come back stronger than ever. Until then, they’ve got to hold the fight down.”
Harris said it will be tough on the community with Williams behind bars. “But he’s going to motivate us to keep going,” he said. “We gotta keep going for him.”
The drug charges Williams faced Friday stemmed from a situation in April 2020, when he was caught with cocaine and heroin in Richmond’s East End. In March, police stopped the car he was driving, found a gun in the vehicle and charged him with possession of a gun as a nonviolent felon.
The prosecution agreed to delay Williams’ date for reporting to jail until after Christmas, meaning he can attend the community toy drive he has been planning for Dec. 24 at Mosby Court and spend Christmas with his children. He is scheduled to report to jail on Dec. 27.
His supporters were disappointed that the groundswell of support that has been growing since Williams’ last court hearing in November did not convince the prosecution to lower the sentence of four years and three months it had already offered.
“It seemed like they didn’t even take it into consideration,” Harris said of the letters of support for Williams.
“That’s the system for you,” Johnson said. “You see how they give us pleas all the time? We’ve always got to take a plea agreement.”
After Friday’s guilty pleas, the prosecutor handling the case, Benjamin Shute, referred questions about the case to his boss, Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin. Reached by phone after the hearing, McEachin said she has received about 10 letters from supporters of Williams asking her to spare him a prison term.
She said her office weighed several factors before deciding against lowering the sentence, including Williams’ positive contributions but also his drug dealing that she described as “years of poisonous and destructive activity.”
“I wonder how many people he has been helping out over the past three months have had family members who were harmed or destroyed by his years of drug distribution in the same community,” McEachin said. “I don’t think historically underserved communities like Mosby are entitled to any less protection or deference than any other community in Richmond, and I can’t think of any community in Richmond who would want drug distribution rampant in their community.”
“Drugs beget guns, and guns beget violence,” she added. “It’s a vicious, horrible circle.”
McEachin said her office “more than gave him the benefit of the doubt,” noting that the prosecution withdrew charges against Williams.
Williams, 29, an Army veteran who saw combat in Afghanistan, stood before Judge Reilly Marchant on Friday in Richmond Circuit Court, speaking softly as he answered the judge’s questions as “Yes, Your Honor” and “No, Your Honor.”
He pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm by a nonviolent felon. Accepting the plea agreement, Marchant sentenced Williams to 20 years with 17 years and nine months suspended for the drug charge, and five years with three years suspended for the weapon charge.
Under the terms of the agreement, the prosecution withdrew a charge of possession of heroin with intent to distribute and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
Shute, the prosecutor, gave the judge the following statement of facts:
On April 2, 2020, Williams was seen making “hand to hand” transactions at a convenience store at Mosby Street and Mechanicsville Turnpike that the prosecutor characterized as “essentially an open-air drug market.” He was caught with 11.7 grams of cocaine divided into knotted bags and 1.1 grams of heroin. Williams waived his rights and confessed to distributing narcotics.
When Williams was arrested nearly one year later, this past March 11, police found a gun with an extended magazine in a car he was driving.
Williams resisted arrest and hit an officer a few times before police took him to the ground. McEachin confirmed that police used a Taser on Williams.
Williams, in an interview after Friday’s hearing, admitted that he assaulted the police, explaining that he was upset and didn’t understand why they were arresting him right then. He said the car he had been driving was not his and neither was the gun.
Before Friday, Shute had told Williams’ attorney, John Luxton, that if Williams did not accept the plea agreement and a punishment of four years and three months, the authorities would amend the two drug charges to possession with intent to distribute as a second offense, each of which would carry a minimum punishment of three years in prison under state law.
Williams had been arrested on a drug charge in 2015, after he returned to Richmond with post-traumatic stress disorder and other injuries from his tour in Afghanistan. In that case, his prison term was suspended, but he was a convicted felon at age 23 and lost his job working for the U.S. Postal Service.
In the more recent cases, Luxton said, Williams would have been facing a mandatory minimum of eight years in prison if convicted of the enhanced drug charges and the gun violation, nearly twice as long as the four years and three months.
On Friday, Williams said that if the prosecution had not allowed him to report to jail after Christmas, he would have fought the charges even if it meant spending eight years in prison.
He had decided that nothing, including this case, was going to stop him from spending Christmas with his children before he goes away.