COLUMBIA — Just moments after the jury returned a guilty verdict Thursday night for Damon A. Williams, 24, on a murder charge, a somber courtroom exploded with emotion, and two people were arrested for contempt of court.
After just more than two hours of deliberation, an all-white jury from Pettis County found Williams guilty of first-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action in the shooting of Nathaniel Bentley, 22, on June 10, 2008, during a home invasion at his duplex at 3610 Pimlico Drive.
Following the verdict, Boone County Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton was discussing Williams’ sentencing dates when his mother, Sabra Williams, burst into tears and attempted to leave the courtroom. Hamilton had previously instructed those in attendance to not display any emotion while the verdict was being read.
As court marshals attempted to block Williams’ mother from leaving the courtroom, Williams, who had shown little emotion throughout the trial, shouted and cursed from his seat at the front of the courtroom.
A member of Bentley’s family, Emmanuel Yancey, stood up and approached the front of the courtroom, and court marshals rushed to block his advance. The jury was hurried out of the courtroom during the incident.
Court marshals also restrained Williams, who had stood up to meet his aggressor, but was dragged from the courtroom into another room. His shouting permeated the walls.
Hamilton had Yancey and Williams’ mother arrested for contempt of court, and both were sentenced to two days in the county jail.
Those in attendance were allowed to leave the courtroom several minutes later. Several members of Williams’ family congregated on the courthouse steps, venting their emotions in front of television cameras. A court marshal summoned the Columbia Police Department to send a unit to keep order, and Bentley’s family was escorted away later.
Christopher Slusher, Williams’ attorney, said he was “disappointed” in the verdict. He said the prosecution had “conceded” there was no premeditation by Williams.
“We felt there was no evidence of deliberation,” Slusher said.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Richard Hicks thanked the jury, as well as LaQueta Bentley, the victim's mother, who Hicks said faced a “terrible ordeal.”
“Columbia will be a safer place without Damon Williams running around,” he said.
Williams' verdict is the last of five men who were charged in the incident. The four other men pleaded guilty to reduced charges. They were:
- Michael Jaco, 18, pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery. He has not been sentenced.
- Malcolm Washington, 27, pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and second-degree murder and was sentenced in October to 20 years in prison.
- Denzell Smith, 19, pleaded guilty to second-degree robbery. He has yet to be sentenced.
- Quillan Jacobs, 18, pleaded guilty in March to second-degree robbery. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
According to testimony throughout the trial, Williams, Washington and Jaco entered Bentley's home through an unlocked back door while two others waited outside. They demanded drugs and money from the people inside the duplex before Williams and Washington went upstairs to Bentley's bedroom. After a verbal altercation, Williams shot Bentley in the head.
Williams had previously pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in July, and his charges of first-degree robbery and armed criminal were dropped, but he withdrew his plea in August.
In the trial, the prosecution was charged with the task of proving that Williams had premeditated the murder to uphold the first-degree murder charge.
Two of Williams’ co-defendants in the robbery testified for the prosecution.
The defense relied on a lack of physical evidence to link Williams to the murder weapon, as well as inconsistencies in the testimonies of witnesses. The credibility of Williams’ co-defendants, Jaco and Jacobs, was also called into question, as they had both taken plea agreements from the prosecutor in exchange for their testimony.
"We have to crawl through the sewers sometimes to catch a rat," Hicks said.
Hicks argued Williams had acted deliberately in shooting Bentley, which is necessary to charge him with first-degree murder. He said the fact that Williams asked Jaco for his pistol before the men entered Bentley’s house and that he had time to think before he pulled the trigger, proved premeditation.
“The victim had time to figure out ‘this guy’s gonna shoot me.' The defendant had time to think about it,” Hicks said, noting that Bentley had time to put up his hand in front of his forehead. He also cited remarks made by Williams after the shooting took place.
In the trial, Slusher called only one witness to the stand Thursday — Jarale Nichols, Bentley’s roommate at the time of his death, who was present when the men entered the house.
Sentencing for Williams is scheduled for Dec. 7. Under the Missouri Revised Statutes, the punishment for first-degree murder is life without the possibility of parole. Slusher said he would appeal the court’s decision.