Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Barnet asked a federal jury to sentence 46-year-old Joseph Williams to life in prison for illegally possessing a gun that he used to kill Gail Collins. Despite the fact that Williams has not been charged with nor convicted of Collins’ murder, the jury, last week, did as Barnet asked.
Collins was found shot to death in her Aspen House apartment in Alexandria on March 12, 2003. Williams had performed odd jobs for Collins for some time. At the time of the murder, according to evidence presented by Barnet, Williams was about to be evicted from his apartment, close to having his car repossessed, had no money and his crack cocaine habit was costing hundreds of dollars at least every other day. Collins told her family she would not give Williams any more money. A week after she made that statement, she was dead.
On March 11, 2003, Williams used Collins’ ATM card and removed $580 from her bank account. Witnesses testified that Williams made damaging admissions about the murder to them. Keith Bartee told the jury of a conversation he had with Williams after they smoked crack cocaine in Williams’ apartment.
According to Bartee, Williams had been acting particularly paranoid and told him that something bad had happened to a woman in his apartment building. Because Williams had earlier told Bartee that the police were interested in him, that he had to leave town and that he didn’t want to get Bartee or their friend in trouble. Bartee asked Williams if he had killed someone and Williams did not deny it.
Williams’ niece, Julia Williams, testified that she confronted her uncle with a more direct question about whether he had killed Collins. He responded: “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.”
Doug Gaskins testified that Williams told him he was out of town visiting Ursula Holloman, when Collins was killed, a fact which was shown by the government to be false.
OTHER WITNESSES testified that Williams was in possession of a firearm, which he purchased in Washington, D.C. That firearm was the same type used to kill Collins. The gun was never found.
In remarks at the sentencing hearing last week, Barnet argued for life in prison. “This was not a run-of-the-mill firearm case,” Barnet told the jury. “It was unique; because here there was a specific victim, Gail Collins. From the evidence, the court can deduce she was a completely innocent victim. Her life was not like the lives of the individuals the court saw during the trial, long-term crack cocaine addicts and other associates of the defendant’s. Those people were part of the defendant’s world, not Gail Collins'.
“Yet, Gail crossed paths with the defendant and it cost her life. In a tragic irony, the jury returned its guilty verdict on what would have been Gail’s 50th birthday. She wasn’t allowed to celebrate that birthday with her family or friends, the defendant took that away from her,” Barnet said.
S. Randolph Sengel was pleased with the outcome. “This is an excellent example of federal/state cooperation,” he said. “When we realized that the U.S. Attorney’s office might have jurisdiction and that the penalties in federal court were harsher than those in Circuit Court, we talked with them and they agreed to prosecute Mr. Williams. The sentence is the correct outcome.”