A mother's desperate fight to save her 15-year-old son from an adult prison sentence for murder was played out in a heart-wrenching courtroom drama in Pensacola on Monday.
But in the end, despite her pleas to Judge Joel Boles, Anne Williams could not save her son Warren Williams from a sentence of 20½ years in prison for the March 2010 shooting death of his father, William "Bill" Williams.
With his two attorneys, Barry Beroset and Paul Mones, at his side, the youth entered a plea of guilty to second-degree murder "without a firearm."
By accepting that plea, Williams avoided a first-degree murder trial and a possible sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole if convicted. His first-degree murder trial was scheduled to begin this week.
During the hearing, Boles repeatedly asked the slight, sandy-haired teenager if he was entering the plea under his own free will, and if he understood he was waiving his right to trial and right to an appeal of a conviction.
Williams responded "Yes, sir," to each question.
"Now Mr. Williams, you've had plenty of time to speak with your attorneys about entering this plea, and you've also had a chance to speak with your mom and family as well," Boles said. "And do you understand that this can't be your mom's decision or your attorneys' decision to enter this plea?"
"Yes, sir, I understand that," Williams said.
Despite her son's responses, Anne Williams criticized the plea deal, implying it had been made without her involvement or consultation, and begged the court to sentence Williams as a juvenile.
"I am fighting for my child's life," she said. "Warren is a minor in the eyes of the law, and treating Warren as an adult has minimized my parental rights, and has minimized my ability to assist my son in sound and informed decisions," Anne Williams said. "I would respectfully like to question this process that mandates children have to make decisions that affect the rest of their lives with little or no parental involvement."
"I believe there are many others gathered in this courtroom today who feel the system has let us down," she added. "For the record I am requesting the State of Florida to consider sanctions more appropriate for a juvenile, because, your honor, Warren is a juvenile.
In addition to the 20½ years in state prison, which was only sentence available to Boles under the plea agreement, Williams also received 15 years of probation following his release from state prison.
Evidence of the teen's psychological history weighed heavily in the state's decision to accept the plea, said Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille.
"While the case was being prepared for trial, the fact of significant psychological issues became apparent," Marcille said. "And while a firearm was obviously part of the offense, we do have the discretion to remove that part of the charge."
In a prepared statement, Williams' mother pleaded with Boles for leniency for her son before a packed courtroom audience numbering more than 50 people.
"Warren's traumatic history began at age 7 when his brother died from suicide," she said. "Warren is a child and a grandchild, and we want him home with us. He should not be sentenced to more years in prison than he has lived."
'State of madness'
Dressed in slacks and a long-sleeve shirt, Williams was led into the courtroom at 8:30 a.m. by Escambia County Sheriff's deputies. He did not look at his mother or other family members as he was seated between his attorneys.
Boles also allowed Williams' 85-year-old grandmother, Mary Lou Williams, who was advised not to attend the hearing, to address the court via speakerphone.
"I know this little boy was in a state of madness when this tragedy occurred," she said. "Depression is part of the Williams family. Can you imagine what it would be like for this little boy to be in adult prison?
"I forgive Warren and I will love him forever," she said, her voice quivering.
Following his sentencing, Williams was fingerprinted and led away by deputies.
Boles adjourned the hearing as several family members openly wept and embraced Anne Williams, who was overheard saying to a friend, "I need my son, that's what I need."
Warren Williams' grandmother, Dot Tobiassen, said, "I don't know how I feel right now. I can't imagine him being gone for that many years."